The Aberfan Young Wives’ Club: a Game-Changer for ITV Cymru Wales?
Last week ITV Cymru Wales won a prestigious award. This is significant for two reasons. The Aberfan Young Wives’ Club is a moving documentary about the infamous disaster told through the eyes of seven local women who have met every week for the last fifty years. It won in the Best Factual (History) category at the Royal Television Society Programme Awards, beating all the main broadcasters across the UK.
This is a considerable achievement for ITV Wales. A 20-year dearth of network programmes ended only in 2014 with Green Bay Media’s, My Grandfather Dylan, followed by two programmes in the Current Affairs strand, Tonight.
The other important factor is that the Aberfan documentary was the first production by an ITV Studios company called Shiver Cymru. Not many people realise that ITV Studios has already got a presence in Wales. More of that later.
For ITV Wales the award could not have come at a better time. There have been rumblings from some Welsh politicians in the last few months about ITV Wales, including some members of the Welsh Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee. They are not doing as well as the ITV company in Scotland, they say. Why isn’t there better portrayal of Wales on the ITV network channels, they shout.
This shows a failure to understand the position of ITV Wales.
As a commercial broadcaster, ITV is in a different broadcasting world compared to twenty years ago when HTV, renamed ITV Cymru Wales, produced nearly 600 hours of programmes about Wales every year. They were able to do this because winning an ITV licence was still valuable as it made considerable money from advertising. It was worthwhile promising to make news and other programmes about Wales as part of its Public Service Broadcasting commitment.
Today the value of the licence is considerably less because of competition for advertising revenue from hundreds of other channels, digital platforms and social media. After a series of takeovers a decade ago, ITV Wales is now part of ITV plc. Nevertheless, it still has a considerable public service commitment. It has to produce 287 hours a year of programming, including a daily evening news programme, bulletins and 90 minutes of non-news programming each week, half of which has to be in peak time (6pm to 10.30pm).
The flagship news programme, Wales at Six, reaches over half a million viewers per week and is an essential part of public service broadcasting in Wales, giving a credible alternative to BBC Wales. Current Affairs programmes like Wales This Week are shown in peak time whereas the BBC Wales flagship Week in Week Out broadcasts most of its programmes after 10.30pm. Sharp End, the political programme, provides an essential plurality alongside the BBC output.
As well as documentaries like Aberfan there are other popular non-news programmes such as Coast And Country, and Crime Files and it shouldn’t be forgotten that ITV joined forces with the BBC to stop the Six Nations rugby going to a non-terrestrial broadcaster like Sky. Remember that ITV has shown every Rugby World Cup since 1987 with ITV Wales producing its own programmes for Welsh games.
Criticism that ITV Wales still doesn’t produce as much programming as its Scottish equivalent, STV is wide of the mark. STV is not owned by ITV plc and is free to do what it wants without the restrictions of being a part of a greater company. Nevertheless, ITV already spends over two and a half times more per head of population for Wales on its programming than for equivalent content in the English regions.
ITV Wales has traditionally made programmes for S4C and still does, including two of the channel’s longest running brands, the current affairs programme Y Byd ar Bedwar and the legendary rural series Cefn Gwlad.
This brings us to the second important point about the Aberfan programme win. It was made by Shiver Cymru, which provided an executive producer, and which is part of the ITV Studios set-up. ITV Studios is also a major producer of S4C programming because it owns Boom Cymru and its affiliated companies which make hundreds of hours a year for the Welsh language channel.
ITV Wales liaise with directly with Shiver, the factual arm of ITV Studios, pitching factual programmes to that company in order to maximise chances of network commissions. Independent production companies in Wales can approach the ITV commissioners in London as normal.
Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television, was in Wales earlier this month to meet Welsh Independents and encourage submission of ideas. Separately from ITV Wales, ITV centrally holds briefings for Independents on commissioning requirements.
So you can see that ITV is a considerable player in the Welsh media.
The pity is that when it comes to portrayal of Wales on Network television ITV does not do well. There are seldom Welsh characters on its dramas let alone a film which has a plot based in Wales.
Welsh politicians seemed to have recognised that it is not the fault of BBC Wales that the BBC network channels have similar problems in the non-portrayal of Wales and have voiced their concerns with the management and commissioners based in London.
Similarly, the politicians should aim their criticism at ITV bosses in London rather that ITV Wales who are doing their best to get programmes on network.
Maybe that’s a third significant point about the Aberfan programme. It was shown on ITV 1 at peak time. Let’s hope it can help persuade the commissioners that Welsh voices do appeal even to a predominantly English audience.
Editorial Note: The 3rd IWA Cardiff Media Summit focussing on the Future of Media in Wales is taking place tomorrow, 29th March.