A channel for Wales 

1 January 2002 tbs.pm/1767

Broadcasting in Wales has always been something of a poisoned chalice. The combination of a limited number of frequencies available to European countries and the topography of a country where the greatest population lives crowded into valleys almost without number in the south, or spread out across small pockets in the shadow of mountains in the north, made broadcasting in Wales a nightmare from the beginning.

The beginning was in the 1920s, when BBC radio began from small, low powered transmitters in Cardiff and Swansea. The bulk of the population were immediately served, but the bulk of the country was not.

To make matters worse, the Welsh language – one of Europe’s oldest surviving tongues – was not spoken by the majority, and those who did speak it were scattered in pockets largely in the north and west.

But the majority of the population, including those with only English, were in favour of programming in Welsh being available, even if they themselves would choose not to listen.

This was possible from those first localised BBC services. But when the Regional Scheme replaced local broadcasting with higher-quality Regional and National programmes, the issue of Welsh-language broadcasting became thornier.

For, whilst the new Regional programme covered more of Wales than the old system, there was no place for a Welsh region. Frequency availability for the higher-powered Regional stations meant that the West region had to serve Wales, and therefore programming in Welsh had to drop out of what little peak-time it had previously covered.

In the post-war period, room for a Welsh Home Service region was found. But this region had to provide a service for the majority English-speaking population as well as those who preferred Welsh, and the Welsh programmes naturally were pushed down the schedules.

When television arrived in the principality, programmes in Welsh also had to feature in the periphery of the schedules. Not only would the majority have objected to the replacement of, say, ‘What’s My Line’ with a programme in Welsh about mining, but also it was technically unfeasible to time-shift London programmes to make room for Welsh.

The birth of ITV didn’t necessarily help this situation. Whilst, unlike the BBC’s main transmitter for Wales, the ITA’s mast was actually in the country, the new contractor TWW was faced with the same conundrum that had challenged the BBC. Programming in Welsh was something apparently much sought-after, but the only room for it was outside of the main schedules.

Whilst Welsh speakers may have sought out programming in their own language, they kept the same hours as the rest of the population, and being a Welsh speaker did not realistically mean you were home from work before 5pm.

But the ITA, and the main group campaigning for television in Welsh, felt they had a better solution to the one originally offered by the BBC.

Instead of offering off-peak Welsh to all of Wales, a company transmitting to the heartlands of Welsh – the north and west – could offer programming during peaktime in the language. This idea caught light, and a Welsh-language broadcaster, Wales (West and North) Television, was offered the contract for the area.

But, perhaps mindful of the troubles that language separation had caused in Canada, Belgium, France and Spain, the GPO, acting as the regulator’s regulator, demanded that any new transmitters in the overlap areas had a disproportional amount of Welsh in order to set them apart from other contractors. Under a general air of benevolence, the GPO managed to saddle the new WWN – Teledu Cymru on screen – with a commitment to programme production that a company of that size simply could not keep up.

In 1964 the company died, disappearing into the neighbouring TWW, who could afford such lavish spend on Welsh programming, but weren’t necessarily now required to, the point having been cruelly proved.

When the Pilkington Committee began to look at television in the early 1960s, the looming debacle at WWN was clear to them.

They felt that commercial broadcasting couldn’t realistically be expected to make quality programming in Welsh – indeed, they felt that commercial broadcasting couldn’t realistically make anything of quality and were happy to say so loudly and with little regard for accuracy.

Therefore Pilkington recommended to the BBC – who could do no wrong and enthusiastically welcomed the report – that they should take the commanding heights of broadcasting in Wales and in Welsh.

Thus the BBC ‘spun-off’ the television service in Wales, and renamed it on air to ‘BBC-Wales’, a name that stuck even when BBC-2 arrived in the country and the rest of the UK were watching BBC-1.

This ‘new’ service increased the number of Welsh programmes – in both English and Welsh – and introduced continuity announcing in Welsh to the BBC. That Teledu Cymru, under both WWN and TWW, had been using bilingual continuity was ignored – the BBC were pleased at this ‘innovation’.

With the arrival of UHF, and the corresponding increase in frequencies available in Wales (VHF’s famed long reach was counterproductive in a hilly country, whilst UHF’s short reach allowed for a greater specialisation of services across the UK), programming in Welsh made a much greater appearance in peaktimes.

But a Welsh-speaker seeking entertainment at 8pm on a weeknight still really only had English language programmes to watch.

The fourth UHF frequency on each transmitter was going unused. Whilst the debate in the UK as a whole was centred on what to do with it – BBC3, ITV2, OBA1 – the debate in Wales was more narrowed.

This unused frequency could put the best of BBC and HTV (who had become the Welsh contractor in 1968) programming out during peaktimes, whilst also sparing English-only speakers from having to watch Welsh language programmes when the rest of the UK was enjoying ‘Crossroads’ and the like.

Finally the people of Wales would have a real choice – programming in English on the BBC and HTV, programming in Welsh on the fourth channel.

All three of the UK’s main parties agreed that this was a goal to aim for in the plans for a fourth service. But Plaid Cymru went a step beyond and insisted this was essential. For one thing, when the BBC and HTV made programmes for Wales, they had to decide between doing the programme in English or in Welsh.

As a nation in its own right, Wales deserved – and required – programming aimed at the Welsh and describing Wales. But limited budgets and timeslots meant programmes about Wales had to be split into different lingual camps.

A fourth channel concentrating on programmes in Welsh meant that BBC-Wales and HTV could devote their time to showing programmes about Wales, in addition to programmes about the world as a whole, in English.

The fourth channel could then cover Wales, the UK and the world in Welsh. At the time of the 1979 election, both parties promised that their plans for a fourth channel, 15 years after the start of BBC-2 and of indecision, would include a solution to the conundrum of programming in Welsh.

The Tories, with their slightly more comprehensive plans for the fourth channel, argued that the fourth channel in Wales, whilst not necessarily exclusively in Welsh, should be the home of all Welsh programming.

The channel would be commercial in nature – or, at least, subsidised by the Welsh Office, HTV and the BBC whilst also showing commercials sold by HTV – but would also take the BBC’s Welsh programmes on board.

Thus the BBC’s news in Welsh would become the Welsh fourth channel’s news in Welsh. ‘Pobol y Cym’, the popular soap opera from the BBC, would move to the new channel, allowing, in theory at least, the BBC to put a soap opera set in Wales but performed in English in the resulting slot.

When the Conservatives came to power in the UK in 1979, they immediately began to get cold feet. Whilst the plans for ‘Channel Four’ in the UK proceeded apace, secretary of state for Wales Nicholas Edwards and UK Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw began to think that BBC programming on a commercial Welsh fourth channel didn’t make sense.

Whilst taking the ‘handicap’ of Welsh programmes away from HTV – effectively creating HTV2 – made commercial sense, the BBC contribution was nothing more than a subsidy. Speaking of which, a channel with that much Welsh, especially in peaktime, would require far more money than HTV and the BBC could provide.

The Welsh Office would have to come up with the remainder in the form of a subsidy – something the new government was determined to phase out in order to slash direct taxes to (on a European scale) virtually nothing.

In September 1979, Willie Whitelaw determined that the new fourth channel in Wales should be the same as the new ‘Channel Four’ in England, with the exception of off-peak programming and the occasional important peaktime offering being supplied by HTV and independent producers.

Indeed, these programmes could also even appear on the national Channel Four network – proving the minority credentials of this minority channel in a way previously inconceivable.

BBC-Wales programmes in Welsh could move to a new ‘BBC 2 for Wales’, in peaktime if necessary. All of this reasoning – the real reason, of course, being to save government money – was presented as a way of preventing Welsh programming from languishing in a fourth-channel ghetto.

For a subject that could be described as parochial and of little interest to the UK as a whole, the Welsh fourth channel suddenly became a national hot potato.

With Plaid Cymru shouting ‘treachery’, a sudden increase in extremist attacks on English homes and transmitter masts in Wales, and the chattering classes suddenly aware of the issue and also feeling that the Welsh were being hard done by, the Home Office was left in disarray.

Why were the UK population at large – and the national papers in particular – suddenly so vexed? There is a whole book to be written about how the UK had elected a government it didn’t trust and continued to never trust for 18 years whilst constantly re-electing it.

But, for the purposes of this article, it’s probably safe to say that the distress of the Welsh political class at being let down resonated with the same people that would re-elect the same government in the next three elections.

The government was caught – early on and with little warning – in a foretaste of the next 18 years. By September 1980, the leader of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans, was preparing to go on hunger strike to hold the government to their promises.

The fire of Welsh nationalism – so recently declared to be out when Wales voted against devolution – suddenly caught again, so much so that the Westminster elections 18 years later would leave the anti-devolution (and thus, conceivably, anti-Wales) Conservatives without a single seat in the principality.

By September 1980, Mr Whitelaw was backtracking. Unwilling to give in to Mr Evans’s threat, he announced his reversion to a concentration of Welsh programming on the fourth channel to a separate group of leading Welshmen, including the then archbishop of Wales, G O Williams, who had descended upon him to express their horror.

In short order, the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority was set up, with a generous stipend from the UK government’s secretary of state for Wales, and the plans for the new fourth channel were put in place.

The IBA, despite having no say in the new channel, were asked to concentrate their resources on Wales, so that some of the smallest relays in the principality were given capacity for the channel even before some of the main transmitters of ITV were prepared.

The BBC, not sure about being, effectively, an independent producer for a commercial station, were brought round with guarantees of a front-cap announcing their ownership of the programme following, and a cordon sanitaire preventing commercials from appearing not only during a BBC programme, but for some time before and afterward.

With a suddenness and commitment that only a volte face of this nature could bring, the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority’s network, complete with time-shifted relays of Channel Four UK, and even, at first, programming in English aimed at Wales, went on air on 1 November 1982, a day before the other Channel Four.

The channel picked a name for itself in Welsh – Sianel Pedwar Cymru – that translated effortlessly into the English ‘Channel Four Wales’ – and a shortened form that offended nobody and pleased everybody – S4C.

And, through subsidy and the willingness of the best Welsh talent – actors, writers and directors – to work towards the dream, S4C became the only commercial station the UK ever produced that could beat the BBC at its own game. Quality.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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2 responses to this article

James 14 May 2019 at 5:54 pm

I grew up in Wales but I never spoke any welsh even though I attended a welsh primary school most spoke English as their 1st language and welsh as their 2nd language I wasn’t really into S4C’s kids slot I was more an CITV boy

Gwyn Meredith 31 October 2022 at 4:11 pm

The advantage of the long range of the old VHF transmissions was that they gave viewers in most of Wales a choice between local and neighbouring English television services. Few English-speaking Welsh people watched BBC Wales in the sixties (apart from the nightly news programme) because of the disruption caused to UK programme schedules by Welsh language programmes.
When they lost access to English transmissions with the changeover to UHF transmissions in the early seventies many viewers complained. Unlike STV in Scotland and both BBC and ITV in some English regions BBC Wales and HTV/ ITV Wales have never used the greater number of channels available with UHF to provide more specialised local services though one of the applicants for the old ITV franchise said it would have local opt outs in its nightly news programme.

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