Future of Broadcasting in Wales Conference – Institute of Welsh Affairs, Cardiff, 18 October 2011
Broadcasting chiefs, television producers and media analysts met in Cardiff last week (18 October) to discuss the future of broadcasting in Wales. The conference, organised by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, came as AMs began their own inquiry into the media following job losses at BBC Wales and Media Wales, and the Coalition Government in Westminster prepares to set outs its agenda for the new Communications Bill, expected in mid-2013.
The morning session heard from the bosses of S4C, BBC Wales and ITV Wales, with only Channel 4 absent from the main public service broadcasters in Wales. Huw Jones, who became chair of the S4C Authority in June following last year’s management crisis, said S4C needed to cut its budget by 25% over the next four years. The former S4C executive said there was still no guarantees about funding after 2015, and called on the BBC, which takes over responsibility for the troubled broadcaster from the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) in 2013, to make a financial commitment from the licence fee. He also said there were still questions about how the relationship between S4C and the BBC would work in practice, but the core principles of both broadcasters needed to be respected.
The BBC’s new controller for Wales, Rhodri Talfan Davies, sounded a more positive note, despite also being forced to find £10.7m in savings by 2016. The former head of strategy said BBC Wales would protect investment in political programming, including its flagship current affairs show Week In Week Out, although the Welsh current affairs programme Dragon’s Eye would be replaced by a new independently-produced politics show. He also promised more investment in peak-time radio and high-definition television, and raised the possibility of making the BBC’s vast archival content available online.
Chairing the discussion, Ian Hargreaves, Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University, asked how BBC Wales and S4C would collaborate in the future. Both Jones and Talfan Davies said they were open to practical suggestions on sharing resources, including the prospect of a joint headquarters in Cardiff Bay.
Elan Clos Stephen, the BBC Trust’s member for Wales, also joined the discussion to say the BBC intended to make an ‘honourable’ financial commitment to S4C, adding it was time to move on from the ‘internecine warfare’ of the past year. As was announced this week (25 October), S4C’s budget will remain stable until 2017.
Guy Philips, Editor of ITV Regional News, spoke about the situation at ITV Wales, which has seen a fall on Welsh news coverage from 5 hours 20 minutes to just 4 hours since 2008. Phillips said there would be no further reduction in Welsh news, but noted the channel faced growing commercial pressures since the value of its licence had fallen considerably with the digital switchover, while the cost of its public service obligations had increased.
Philips added that the channel was piloting a new hour length early evening bulletin, which could feature 20 minutes of UK news followed by 30 minutes news for Wales and 10 minutes of Welsh current affairs. He was less certain, though, about ITV’s public service commitment beyond the channel’s licence renewal in 2014.
The morning session also heard from Blair Jenkins, the former chair of the independent Scottish Broadcasting Commission, on the SNP Government’s plans to create a new Scottish Digital Network, using licence fee money. The proposed platform, which has strong backing from both politicians and the public north of the border, would broadcast at least 4 hours of peak-time material deemed ‘recognisably but not relentlessly Scottish’.
The afternoon session heard from Wil Stephens, Director of Cardiff-based Cube Interactive, about the long term future of broadcasting in Wales. Stephens called data the ‘new oil’ and criticised the Welsh Government for the ‘missed chance’ of creating Wales’s own Internet Service Provider (ISP) network.
Looking to the future, Stephens emphasised the opportunities for creative entrepreneurs to recycle content produced by broadcasters and called for the creation of a copyright exchange, as recommended in the recent Hargreaves Report on Intellectual Property (IP).
Stephens also joined a panel discussion with Tinopolis boss Ron Jones and Mark Frankling from Town and Country Broadcasting, to debate the Coalition Government’s plans for local TV. While Stephens and Frankling sounded optimistic about the chance to broadcast local news and entertainment, Jones said there were few commercial benefits in the scheme, but admitted that Wales should not walk away from the opportunity.
The conference ended with a discussion on the future policy agenda for broadcasting in Wales. Geraint Talfan Davies, the Chair of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, said there needed to be more public discussion about media policy in Wales, sensing that Welsh viewers and broadcasters would continue to lose out if consultations were held behind closed doors in Westminster. As the first step towards the creation of a more ‘durable mechanism’ for debate, he announced the formation of a Wales Media Policy Forum, whose first task would be to address the current Assembly inquiry into the media in Wales.
The agenda set out at this timely conference raises a number of issues for the Cardiff School of Creative and Cultural Industries (CCI) to address. Firstly, there is the opportunity to get involved in any proposal for local TV in Cardiff. The Atrium already has the skills and facilities to take advantage of this scheme, but we need the develop partnerships with the lead applicants now before we miss the boat.
Secondly, many of the broadcasters highlighted the limitations of crude viewing figures when it came to evaluating the broader relevance of their television shows. With our strong record on in-depth qualitative audience research, CCI researchers could lead the way in developing better ways of measuring and communicating the social, cultural and democratic value of broadcasting in Wales.
Finally, it is clear we need to engage more with the debate over the media policy in Wales. Drawing on our international contacts with other media analysts, particularly those developed during this year’s International Conference on Media and Culture in Small Nations, there is a real opportunity to inform the current debate about the future of broadcasting in Wales with perspectives from other small nations.
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