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.

15 thoughts on “Few successes for English language TV in Wales

  1. I suspect BBC Wales is increasingly serving a declining ‘Welsh’ audience no matter in what language. The development of the ‘northern powerhouse’ in the north west of England will only exacerbate such decline.

    It’s time we re-arranged all the jigsaw pieces, no matter the consequences on faux ‘national pride’.

  2. Have you noticed the plethora of programmes, aimed at Britain, about English history, myth and ledgend? Even Arthur and Merlin are presented as English. Nothing goes the other way. It supports the common fiction that Wales has no history.

    However, the history of Wales is the history of Britain. Arthur and Merlin fought against German colonisation of Britain not for it.

    In this case Football says it all. When England play the game is broadcast to the whole UK. When Wales play (and ITV or BBC have the rights) it only goes to Wales. Because England couldn’t give a damn.

  3. I am not sure that the average welsh person is ‘obsessed’ about a)welshness,b)coverage of (a) by BBC CYMRU as all media types are in this region of UK. I watch the 6.30 news and it could be abolished as the news is ‘re occuring’,and therefore the news could be recycled.With the plethora of channels now available,and the professionalism of SKY and others which bring the world into my living room,why would be be interested in whats happening in Carmarthen??. In a consumer led society people can voluntary decide what they wish to be interested in,and on a political level the ‘goings on’ down the BAY make the Politiburo of Soviet Union look like Morecambe and Wise at their best.It seems to me that BBC Wales has an identity ‘crisis’, as it needs the WAG/Assembly as part of process to separate us from UK,whilst having to provide some form of scrutiny for public consumption,but not TOO much scrutiny which could get the ‘natives’ restless.

  4. @Karen. You are correct in your analysis,however reality is not a ‘stock in trade’ with WAG or Assembly as a whole.In my humble opinion the geographical/population nature of Wales makes it a very unviable place to manage/develop.The NATS have a romanticised notion of Wales which if it ever existed,it doesn’t now but as in the fable it took a child to recognize and state that the King was ‘unclothed’,as courtiers too obsessed with ‘getting on’,rather than dealing with the actualitie.The decline will continue,however within it there will be huge income differences between the ‘favoured’ areas,i.e Caerdyyd and valley ‘hinterlands’,including Bridgend the seat of our First Minister!!

  5. You get what you pay for really. Billions has gone into S4C while English language Welsh programming was starved of cash but the popularity of S4C has collapsed in the last few years. Early Nov. 2015 the top 20 programmes had 436,000 views altogether, that is views, it will mostly be the same people for all programmes. The highest viewing figure is 48,000. Go back to the same week in 2013 and the highest viewing figure is 85,000 and a cumulative viewing total of over 720,000.

    If S4C was a horse you’d shoot it but it’s a cultural icon (read millstone) so we can’t.

  6. As an example, how many hit tv scripts from wales do you think the BBC have ignored in favour of the usual mediocre mass market TV they churn out?

    You can force them to bring infrastructure but you can’t force them to use poor talent because it fits a quota.

  7. The decline in funding for English programmes for a Welsh audience is because Wales is completely invisible in the BBC centrally. I know I worked there for 10 years with friends in both London and Cardiff. Even if you are not a Welsh speaker (i am not) the value of S4C to the Welsh economy is undeniable. I know many executives at BBC Wales who’d love to award contracts in Wales (those that fall under EU thresholds) but can’t because London is very very very much in control. Be careful. No doubt someone near and dear to you has benefitted from S4C’s existence even if you or they have never watched a single programme. If we support what supports the Welsh economy, the issues we disagree on become less significant.

  8. Quite true Jane; three people that I went to school with worked their entire lives for production companies that made programming for S4C, but it’s history. People have become millionaires or had a good living before going bankrupt (like Barcud in Caernarfon) all from producing fifth rate programmes for a handful of people to watch. Look at the viewer trends; at some point someone has to see the utter folly of a TV channel that caters for no one but programme makers.

  9. Is there any comparative UK regional data that says Wales is actually worse off than other areas ?

    I can’t think of much programming specifically targeted at say the Birmingham consumer market – good for at least 1.125 million.

    Is their any hard data indicating the total sums (and subsidies!) that are spent on Wales focussed English language TV versus Welsh language TV and how does this pan out on a pro rata basis here within the Principality.

  10. J Jones

    Further to your point about low S4C usage above, here is another insightful stat published by WG this week.

    Of the 54,476 calls made to NHS Direct Wales in the last quarter only 426 callers asked to be dealt with in welsh. This either illustrates that people are making an interesting free choice in numbers we should be taking note of when spending taxpayers money or that being welsh speaking means you are more likely to be outstandingly healthy and rarely need NHS Wales !


  11. BBC takes our TV Tax under duress and offers us mainly British programmes and profligate waste in return! I’m shocked, shocked I tell you. Anybody would think the clue is in the name – British Broadcasting Corporation…

    Not sure what the Regional services are for really – travelling round the country they all seem to be pretty much as bad as each other… ITV – ditto. Tokenism?

  12. The penultimate paragraph of Dr Medhurst’s article is absolutely right: the BBC’s transfer of production to South Wales has done nothing for the development of Welsh-themed projects. As far as aspiring Welsh producers and writers are concerned, the production taking place on their doorstep might as well be on another planet.

    GP’s comment explains why: the BBC in particular is very unwelcoming to anyone outside its magic circle. Welsh-themed scripts are usually fobbed off on the Writers’ Room in London, which functions as the corporate slush pile, and where Welsh idiom is neither understood nor appreciated.

  13. Plenty of millionaires make mediocre programmes for the BBC in England. If we make decisions about things purely on numbers we’d all be watching EastEnders or similar. Not much hope for the arts or classical music. And God knows Wales needs more millionaires (I am not one, yet).

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