Few successes for English language TV in Wales

Jamie Medhurst responds to the IWA’s draft Media Audit findings on English language TV in Wales.

Let’s start on a positive. The IWA’s 2015 Wales Media Audit should be welcomed as a detailed, systematic and often thought-provoking document. Given the importance of the media in Wales as providers of information, education and entertainment (and didn’t the late John Davies once say that Wales was an artefact created by the media – or broadcasting, at least), then it’s surprising that it’s taken seven years for such a comprehensive study to emerge. The team who produced the report are to be commended – diolch!

However … the picture painted is not good. Dyfrig Jones has already considered the current state of Welsh-language television as exemplified in the audit and other have, or will, consider other aspects of the survey. For my part, one of the most worrying trends to emerge is the decline in spending on English-language programming in, for, and about Wales. And there are two issues at stake here, I think: programmes in English about Wales and aimed at the Welsh audience and those programmes made for the BBC and ITV networks, Channel Four etc which collectively represent Welsh voices to a wider UK/international audience.

In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised by the relatively poor state of things. Taking a historical perspective, there has always been concern that broadcasters in Wales were not serving the non-Welsh-speaking audience well. One need only look at criticisms of Television Wales and the West (TWW) in the 1960s, when The Times (in the days when the London papers showed some interest in Welsh media matters) noted that ‘there is little evidence of any attempt to effect a creative contribution in English to Wales as a distinctive community, still less to project the Welsh image onto the Independent Television network’. BBC Cymru Wales also attracted criticism for focusing its energies on Welsh-language television in the 1970s at the expense of English-language programming.

Nevertheless, the decline in spend on English-language television since the 2008 audit is startling – 30% in real terms. ITV Wales, of course, has seen its programming obligation to Wales cut by 40% following the agreement with OFCOM in 2009 though it should be noted that this doesn’t count the Welsh-language provision for S4C which falls outside of the Channel 3 licence agreement. As the audit notes, BBC Wales’s spend dropped 25% between 2005-06 and 2014-15 and will no doubt fall again following the latest licence fee settlement. This will result in fewer hours of original programming for Wales, a narrowing in the range of programmes on offer and the danger that the high-end programmes in terms of finance (drama, the arts, light entertainment) are virtually squeezed out.

And this is where pluralism comes in. In a healthy democracy, we shouldn’t be relying on one broadcaster to provide for the non-Welsh-speaking audience. We need plurality of voices, not just in terms of providers (a stronger ITV Wales to offer an alternative to BBC Wales, for example) but a plurality in terms of the programmes – hard-hitting, and well-resourced documentaries, incisive arts programming, biting comedy … all of which contribute to a healthy public sphere in Wales.

A final word on Wales in the wider world (by which I mean the UK networks). Much has been made of the BBC’s decision to locate a good amount of drama production outside of London, and the Roath Lock development is undoubtedly something to be admired. Yet how much of a Welsh ‘voice’ if there in Doctor Who, Casualty, Atlantis et al? How can BBC Wales, ITV Wales (with some notable exceptions as highlighted in the Audit) and independent producers break through the sometimes insurmountable barriers to get on the UK networks? There are exceptions of course. One major success has been the Nordic noir-like Hinterland/Y Gwyll, the  first series of which was broadcast on S4C in 2013 and on BBC1 Wales and BBC4 in 2014. A co-production between BBC Wales, Fiction Factory, S4C and others, and based in the Aberystwyth and surrounding areas, it highlights the innovative and exciting potential of reflecting contemporary Wales on screen where the landscape itself is, in effect, the story. A third series has just been announced and shooting begins in January 2016.

Yet these successes are few and far between. Let’s hope that the Summit on the 11th November will lead to an increase in English-language television not only for Wales but for audiences beyond Offa’s Dyke. I am an eternal optimist.

Dr Jamie Medhurst is Senior Lecturer in Media History and Policy at Aberystwyth University.

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