Dr Elain Price takes a closer look at the history of S4C’s ties with the BBC, and the broadcasters’ current relationship.
S4C celebrated its 40th anniversary on 1 November 2022, but the origins of its relationship with the BBC goes back even further.
Throughout the broadcasting campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, the BBC was, almost without exception, supportive of the principle of establishing a single channel for Welsh language programmes as, in the words of former chair of the Broadcasting Council of Wales Alwyn Roberts ‘the BBC was largely influenced by its perception of the difficulty of satisfying any part of its audience by the existing practice of opting out of network schedules to provide a service for its Welsh viewers’ (Alwyn Roberts, ‘The BBC and the Welsh Fourth Channel Debate – A Personal Note’).
The new channel was building its provision on the shoulders of the Welsh language television provision which had gone on before
At the height of the government’s attempts to appease Gwynfor Evans during his threat to fast, Geraint Stanley Jones, then Head of Programmes at BBC Wales, also wrote a memo in 1980, which cogently and logically set out the reasons why the government’s plans to broadcast Welsh language programmes on BBC-2 and Channel 4 were impossible to implement. This was a key contribution to the debate which persuaded the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, to finally announce his u-turn.
When the S4C Authority members were appointed in January 1981, the BBC was one of its key members. Indeed, the make-up of the new Authority showed that collaboration and partnership were at the heart of the new service with the appointment of the Chair of the Broadcasting Council of Wales, the Welsh member of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the Welsh representative of the Channel 4 Board. These appointments demonstrated that the new channel was building its provision on the shoulders of the Welsh language television provision which had gone on before. This cross-membership also ensured that there was good will for the new channel within the respective organisations and that key decisions could be made swiftly, which was crucial when so much needed to be done in the short months before the channel was scheduled to launch.
Defining the relationship
Nevertheless, this cross membership didn’t mean that the relationship established between S4C and the BBC was without its difficulties. The corporation had a statutory responsibility to provide a specified number of programmes which corresponded to the Welsh language provision that the BBC would have broadcast on its own channels had the new channel not been created, which would be an average of 10 hours a week, and to do so free of charge, paying for them from the TV licence. But very early on in the discussions between S4C and the BBC, there appeared to be a potential conflict between the BBC Charter and S4C’s responsibilities under the Broadcasting Act. This conflict could in theory lead to a situation where the BBC could produce a programme that didn’t meet S4C’s needs in terms of content, technical standards or financial investment, but, since it was the Broadcasting Council of Wales’ responsibility to control these aspects of its productions, S4C would have very little say and would have to broadcast the programme or face a gap in its schedule.
Despite this, in the first memorandum of understanding and early discussions between the two organisations, good will was discussed as the answer to many of these potential conflicts. One could argue that there was an over-reliance on good will in these early discussions at the start of a new venture, which was also the consequence of the friendly personal relationships between ex-colleagues.
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Another area of potential conflict was the links between S4C and the staff producing programmes within the BBC for broadcast on the Welsh channel. The BBC was clear that it did not want informal links since it believed such discussions could undermine the authority of the department heads within the corporation’s management structure. Contact would therefore be limited to regular meetings between heads of programming and planning, and the regular meetings between the Director of S4C and the Controller of BBC Wales.
There was a clear contradiction at the heart of the BBC’s relationship with S4C. On the one hand there was a strong desire to ensure the success and prosperity of the channel, but the corporation also needed to consider its wider needs and responsibilities, and so a clear division of responsibilities between the two organisations was needed at the start of the initiative.
During the early 1980s, the BBC would occasionally broadcast some of the exceptional Welsh language programmes it had produced for S4C with English subtitles on BBC Wales, for example Penyberth and Marathon in 1983 and 1984. These broadcasts instigated a resurgence in the vociferous complaints received by the corporation prior to the establishment of S4C and were a steady reminder of the significant impact of S4C on both Welsh and non-Welsh speaking audiences in Wales. Indeed, in its evidence to the Home Office Review of S4C at the end of its trial period in 1985, the BBC declared that it believed the existence of S4C had led to audiences turning their aerials back to Wales to watch BBC1 Wales rather than watching the equivalent channels in the west of England.
A fundamental shift
The relationship between S4C and the BBC today, of course, is very different. Since 2013 the lion’s share of the channel’s funding has come directly from the licence fee, and S4C is now accountable to the BBC for the licence fee expenditure, sending the corporation a ‘Financial Assurance Report’ twice a year. Fundamental questions were raised about S4C’s independence after the funding changes were announced, but asking other broadcasters to fund S4C is not an original or revolutionary principle. In its early years S4C was funded by the ITV network and this was the pattern of funding throughout the 1980s.
S4C’s editorial, managerial and operational independence is guarded by a formal operating agreement, first published in January 2013 and revised in 2017, and the partnership between the two broadcasters has now evolved to encompass programme co-production, with Y Gwyll/Hinterland (Fiction Factory, 2013–16), Un Bore Mercher/ Keeping Faith (Vox Pictures, 2017–21) and Craith/Hidden (Severn Screen 2018–) the most prominent examples of successful collaboration to produce back-to-back English and Welsh programmes for both broadcasters.
With S4C’s funding now coming almost entirely from the licence fee, the risk is that the future of S4C is tied to that of the corporation
Since late 2014, S4C programmes have also been made available through BBC iPlayer in addition to its own catch-up service Clic. As a result, Welsh language programmes from all of S4C’s programme providers have been able to reach potentially larger audiences on the BBC’s ubiquitous platform, allowing S4C, with its much smaller budget, to take advantage of the BBC’s investment and technological innovations . In addition, from 27 January 2021, S4C’s presentation was broadcast from the BBC’s new headquarters in Central Square, Cardiff, following an agreement to share technical broadcast services to secure efficiencies and savings.
With S4C’s funding now coming almost entirely from the licence fee, the risk is that the future of S4C is tied to that of the corporation, which, as we’ve seen over the last few months, can be at the mercy of the whim of the ministers in charge at the DCMS. Indeed, in that case the future of nearly all Welsh language broadcasting (including BBC Radio Cymru) is tied to the fate of the BBC, and the demise of the licence fee could be devastating for the future of the Welsh language.
We are entering an uncertain future, one where broadcasters, politicians and commentators need to keep a keen eye on developments to ensure that we can continue to celebrate the significant achievements of our Welsh language broadcasters and the impact they have on our day to day lives.
Alwyn Roberts, ‘The BBC and the Welsh Fourth Channel Debate – A Personal Note’ (BBC Wales Archive, File 3573 – ‘S4C 1981–1987’
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