Last year an estimated 35,000 people descended on the streets of Cardiff in celebration of the centenary of one of Wales’ literary greats, Roald Dahl. Taking place over a weekend in September, City of the Unexpected was an immersive experience consisting of both large-scale and intimate performances across the streets of the Welsh capital.
In the press and media coverage that followed the picture painted of Wales was one in which creativity and the arts were thriving. And if recent statistics are anything to go by it would seem this image was not far from the truth.
A 2016 survey by the Arts Council of Wales found that ‘96% of Welsh adults attend and/or participate in the arts each year’ compared to sports events which were reportedly only attended by 41% of respondents. Wales also makes a significant contribution to the world of contemporary art. Based in Cardiff and founded by Welsh artist William Wilkins, the Artes Mundi Prize is the biggest in the UK in terms of prize money, and unlike the more prolific Turner Prize is open to artists of any age and any nationality.
Yet the narrative of arts broadcasting in Wales over the past decade has been one of relative decline.
With a few notable exceptions including BBC One’s BAFTA nominated series Great Welsh Writers, there is now little in the way of regular returning arts series or strands on television. In 2015 the IWA Wales Media Audit reported that arts and music output on BBC Wales was ‘limited’, constituting just 12.9 hours in 2014/15. In its submission to the BBC Charter Review consultation the Arts Council of Wales also asserted that in recent years there has been ‘a decline in the capability of BBC Cymru Wales to deliver a cultural offer to Wales’ going onto state that ‘coverage of the arts in Wales has been neglected’.
Further to this, the concentration of BBC arts funding in London and Glasgow over the past decade has resulted in a production ecology in which representations of Welsh art and culture have not only been reduced within regional output, but also across the network.
Although Ofcom report that spend on first-run UK-network regional productions has increased by 1.5% in Wales since 2008, this has predominantly been bolstered by high-profile dramas which often do little to reflect the unique cultural identity of the nation in which it is produced.
The international success of series such as Doctor Who and Sherlock, for instance, has undeniably been instrumental in raising the profile of drama production in Wales. But the degree to which these series actually contribute to the plurality of cultural voices and representation on a network level is arguably limited.
In 2008 the Wales Broadcasting Committee described Wales as an ‘invisible nation on UK television screens’, and when it comes to arts broadcasting it would appear this continues to be the case.
This downward trajectory in the profile of Welsh arts and culture on screen also coincides with growing concerns around the London-centric nature of arts funding and access more broadly.
In 2013 the Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital report found that in England spending on museums, galleries and theatres in London amounted to £69 per person compared with £4.60 php in the rest of the country. Following the publication of these findings, the director general of National Museums Wales, David Anderson, highlighted further discrepancies between arts spending in London and the rest of the UK, stating that ‘71% of funding for the arts in the whole of the UK from trusts and foundations, corporate donors and private individuals goes to London institutions. The remaining 29% has to be shared out between all the other nations and regions’.
Rather than further contribute to this disparity, public service broadcasters in particular should be making a concerted effort to address this imbalance through strengthening their coverage of artistic work originating and taking place beyond the M25.
Indeed, according to the Arts Council’s website ‘over 24,000 people are employed in the arts and creative industries, in a sector that contributed around £465m to the Welsh economy’. With its reach and impact, broadcasting occupies a pivotal role in nurturing a thriving arts ecology and promoting Welsh arts institutions across the UK.
In relation to this, further attention needs to be given to strengthening the relationship between broadcasters such as BBC Wales Cymru and the wider arts sector.
For many arts institutions broadcasting is still seen as vital for extending their audience reach and justifying public funding as they become no longer just a London institution, for instance, but a national one. For broadcasters, partnerships with arts institutions provides access to a wealth of resources and artistic talent that may otherwise be difficult and/or expensive to procure otherwise.
However, in line with the findings of my own research and that of King’s College London long-term successful partnerships require clear communication and time to allow these relationships to develop somewhat organically over time. The bigger question here is how does this fit into the fast-paced, competitive nature of contemporary television production and commissioning? Especially when the success of these partnerships is often judged by outputs such as programme hours, rather than outcomes such as the greater benefits of these collaborations for the licence fee payer on a cultural and social level.
In conclusion, the arts matter to Wales socially, culturally and economically. Within this context, arts broadcasting is not only a mirror by which national identity is reflected back, it is also the stage on which it is expressed beyond the boundaries of individual nations and regions.
In light of the current social and political climate, the role of broadcasting in providing a platform to showcase the diversity of artistic expression from across the UK has perhaps never been greater. As already discussed at the top of the article, Wales has a rich cultural history and thriving contemporary arts scene to contribute to this. The stage is set and the players are in place; we’re just waiting for the cameras to start rolling.
Editorial note: This is part of Click on Wales’ week-long focus on media issues. The Media Policy Group of the Institute of Welsh Affairs is holding the third Cardiff Media Summit on 29th March and booking information can be found here