S4C Debate 4: Cultural revolution will not be televised

Mari Beynon Owen argues that loyalty to a brand that overrides the remote is no longer valid for any broadcaster

Mari Beynon Owen is a Consultant in the Visual Arts and former International Sales Executive and later Commissioning Editor for Youth Programmes with S4C.

The establishment of S4C gave credence to a momentous combination of political, economic and cultural aspirations. It signified a new credibility for Welsh language culture as the Popeth yn Gymraeg (Everything in Welsh) campaign seemed to have been won for the time being. An energetic generation of independent producers and creative talents emerged. New business start-ups companies developed outside the main media centres. Politically, Wales had proved it could do things differently and with great assertion.

S4C Debate

This is the fourth in a series of articles we are publishing on the future of S4C. Tomorrow, in the last of the series, we publish a view from Scotland

It now seems such a simple solution, which functioned well in the public service broadcasting, four-channel world for which it was created. This media environment has since been totally transformed. If we were setting out today to create and define a new cultural and media agenda, would we go about establishing a television channel? I suggest we wouldn’t.

In recent ruminations over the channel’s future, there has emerged a revisionist view that S4C needs to re-connect with its core audience and regain its lost viewers. An appeal has been made to Welsh speakers to show their true loyalty and return to the channel. However, it is not disregard for the Welsh language which has lost S4C its viewers. One could argue that the concept of a core audience whose loyalty to the ‘brand’ overrides the remote is no longer valid for any broadcaster. Laptops, mobile phones, i-apps now deliver to us a multiplicity of information, entertainment and realities. The active user demands interactive pleasure from several different sources.

If we were creating a new media and cultural agenda today what would be required? The new media service would in all probability provide a platform on which several different content providers could be positioned, supplying content blocks which would be programmed by genre. These would include lifestyle, drama, arts, sports, but also social networks, online communities, access, support and streaming services, as well as national and local news channels. This is what I mean by multi-vision rather than television.

Many of these potential content block providers are already active within their online communities. An interesting model in the visual arts is Culture Colony/ Wladfa Newydd, which has been developed specifically within the arts community to stimulate a creative network whilst also providing an important research and archive resource. This is currently only available online, so to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, “the arts revolution will not be televised”.

The current television channel model represents a centralist, monopolist approach. It seems outmoded, ignoring the plurality of contemporary media culture. More importantly, the new generation of creative developers who are committed to the promotion of a vibrant Welsh language culture are developing new and perhaps more relevant platforms for their creativity and media identity in Wales.

In the cut-throat business environment of television programme sales, where I began my career, the indicators for technological innovation were to be found in the pornography industry. To survive, it had to be always one step ahead in terms of legislation and media consumption trends. It’s an interesting lesson. Not, of course, that I would suggest the future of the Welsh media industry lies in providing new opportunities for providers of pornography!

There is a sense of entrenchment at S4C as the corporate protector of its political legacy. The historic fight for its existence was a simpler one with an easily identifiable goal. All broadcasting services in Wales are again under threat. Indeed, and as happened thirty years ago, new solutions, new ways of working together need to be found. Developing the new platforms that will enable a multiple media environment in Wales to flourish will be a massive challenge.

As I write, significant financial, political and corporate changes are being effected in the media landscape. With these high stakes in mind, the survival game may play out rather differently. Nonetheless the need for dynamic re-invention still remains.

This article is from the current issue of  The IWA’s journal Agenda, issued three times a year. To receive Agenda and get unlimited access to the IWA’s online archive, click here.

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