The Need for Public Service Media has Never Been Greater

Public Service Media has adapted well and shown its value during this crisis but the biggest challenges are up ahead, writes Owen Evans.

It’s been a year that will never be forgotten.

With many sectors starting to feel the impact of Covid-19, there’s no doubt that this period has reinforced public service media’s crucial role. We’ve been key in providing information, ensuring that audiences are aware of what’s happening in news and current affairs, giving people an opportunity to seek answers, but also providing entertainment and escape from that challenging news.

It hasn’t been easy. As filming came to a standstill, S4C had to revamp its schedule. We had to find different ways of working, of entertaining audiences and of providing information. 

Engagement has been crucial. We’ve strengthened our understanding of our audience. Our relationship and communication with viewers is at the forefront of everything we do. But we found that our audiences were engaging with us more than ever before – through social media, our hotline service Gwifren Gwylwyr and, for the first-time, Facebook live sessions.

We also employed two young journalists to package Covid-19 news stories for our social media accounts to ensure that S4C was in a leading position to bring the latest news to our audience. 

Being small has its advantages. We were able to move quickly. Flexible working schemes were already in place for S4C staff. Within a few weeks of lockdown, we supported the sector by holding the first of two rapid commissioning rounds.

Companies were asked for reactive and engaging content that would reflect/suit lockdown and we’ve pushed almost £7m into the production sector across the nation, an important statement given the entire sector faced considerable uncertainty. 

It is vital that Welsh audiences continue to see their lives reflected on-screen and have access to accurate information about our devolved democracy and Welsh life more broadly, in both English and Welsh. Public service media are also a crucial component in our growing screen industries – providing employment and skills which benefit the sector and economy across Wales. We’re now working to resume filming safely.

“The absence of Covid-19 insurance cover is now the key barrier to the recommencement of domestic physical production.”

If there was to be any good news from the crisis, I think the role of the Public Service Media in highlighting the powers of the Welsh Government throughout has been critical. In a nation that sometimes struggles to hear its voice against dominant media suppliers over the border and where 48% of people didn’t realise that health was devolved, the focus on policies made in Cardiff rather than Westminster has been a significant and positive move for Welsh democracy.

The creative sector is of vast importance to Wales but needs assurance. We’ve worked closely with both the Welsh and UK governments throughout the pandemic. Creative Wales, the newly-established creative industries division of the Welsh Government has responded swiftly and this has been hugely welcomed by production companies. 

Working in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was vital to get guidance published by the Welsh Government so that ‘key sector workers’ in the media were able to continue to work during the pandemic. 

Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Helpwch ni i gryfhau sffêr gyhoeddus Cymru.

Challenges, of course, remain. One of the biggest obstacles to restarting film and television productions at scale is the availability of full production insurance for domestic producers. The ability to secure insurance will be critical in resuming productions. The absence of Covid-19 insurance cover is now the key barrier to the recommencement of domestic physical production.

A separate challenge for us will be funding as production costs increase due to the Covid restrictions with content becoming far more expensive. We need to protect Welsh language content and spend and secure the best service possible for our viewers and consumers of content so that we don’t have to become overly-reliant on repeats, nostalgia and Covid-related programmes. 

There will be difficult decisions for production companies when the furlough scheme ends in the autumn, and we’re painfully aware of the situation of many freelancers working across the sector. We are working closely with the sector and industry body TAC and other partners to support.

In the meantime, our autumn schedule will certainly be different, but hopefully with a strong line up of new content. We’ll have some soaps, news and current affairs which continues to do well for us, lots of outdoor-filmed content including journeys across Wales and hopefully a lot of sport. Unlike the past few months, I can’t guarantee that Wales will win those matches though.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Owen Evans is Chief Executive of S4C.

Also within Culture