The slow death of S4C? 

19 August 2010

S4C logo

The fight to start S4C – or at least a dedicated Welsh-language channel that became S4C in 1982 – was a long one involving terrorism, the threat of a hunger strike and years of government indecision.

What resulted was a fascinating hybrid. The new channel was built by the IBA but not controlled or regulated by them. Instead, it was modelled after the BBC, with a Welsh Fourth Channel Authority in the place of the governors. At the same time, the channel took advertising, originally sold by HTV. Yet it also absorbed the Welsh-language output of BBC Wales, leading to the odd sight of commercial breaks in clearly BBC shows (less odd-looking now UKTV is so well established doing the same thing).

Above all, S4C was expensive. Directly funded from central government, the channel was gold-plated, and the money was clearly well spent, producing hours of top quality drama. With the BBC supplying Welsh-speaking correspondents in places like Washington and Brussels, S4C has always come across as the national broadcaster for Wales.

But times change. The ill-conceived 1990 Broadcasting Act dragged in its wake the idea that Channel 4 and S4C should sell their own advertising rather than leaving it to ITV to do for them. This pushed Channel 4 down market fairly rapidly, but S4C held up well – especially since the channel timeshifted 70% of Channel 4 programmes, rebroadcasting them for free and taking the profits from such programmes as Friends.

But the coming of digital meant there was now room on the spectrum from Channel 4 to broadcast in its own right in Wales. Each digital conversion saw an S4C with only Welsh-language programming on ‘4’ and Channel 4, now nationally available, not too far away on ‘8’. When the analogue signal was cut, S4C was left without the crutch of free C4 programmes – and worse, those very programmes were now in direct competition with their former stablemates.


S4C’s Cyw mascot

It seems that S4C had few well-thought-through plans for this happening, despite knowing about it many years in advance. The channel gave the impression of starting to drift, especially when ventures like S4C2, a BBC Parliament-type service for the Welsh Assembly, never seemed to catch on and were soon switched off. A relaunch of the on-screen presentation helped freshen the channel and the launch of ‘Cyw’, the children’s segment, seemed to go down well.

But the channel – or possibly its controlling Authority – seemed to have lost its way. The new, C4-less, schedules managed to be only a few steps from being entirely random. The modern habit of offering fixed-day, fixed-start programming was never acquired, leaving S4C sometimes looking like it had been thrown on air rather than planned with any care or expertise.

S4C’s off-air filler

And then the bankers decided to run the world economy into the ground. The days of plenty – funded by those same bankers – soon became the days of austerity (although not for the bankers themselves, who continued to be handsomely paid). Suddenly, the government’s cupboard was bare. And then a new government, intent on cutting back on everything for ideological as well as fiscal reasons, came to power. The Coalition was soon finding that the population was up for a bit of Masochism and that they could cut essentials, let alone luxuries, without fear of reprisals from voters.

Eyes turn to S4C and its gold-plated lifestyle. Of course, some of the gold-plating isn’t real: the BBC programming it shows is already paid for in the licence fee and were supplied at no cost to S4C, but it’s easy to throw those 672 hours of programming (at £89,463 an hour in 2009) into the pot when looking at places to cut. Still, S4C looks rich even without the BBC contribution, taking a cool £101,369,000 from government funds (broadcasting is not devolved to the Assembly) and £103,000 the sale of advertising and other income, while sitting on reserves of £55,668,000 including money still in the Public Service Fund pot. The Authority paid its own chairman £52,370 and the channel paid the Chief Executive £151,000 plus £10,000 benefits in kind.Figures source: S4C Annual Report and Accounts 2009


Iona Jones

With that type of money, it’s no surprise that S4C is looking down the barrel of a 24% cut in subsidy.Source: The Guardian This news seems to have caused panic at the channel. Having already made a cut of £2,000,000 the Authority had to ask S4C management to prepare for more. It seems that the Chief Executive, Iona Jones, was willing to try to cut more but was worried about the important prime time programming – the very reason S4C was established (Welsh-language programmes rarely getting into the peak on WWN/TWW, HTV or BBC Wales).

She sounded bullish before her meeting with the Authority about the cuts, but that meeting would not seem to have gone well – Jones left abruptly after it.Source: The Guardian The Authority’s statement about her quitting was to the point:

Following a meeting of the S4C Authority, Iona Jones, the Channel’s Chief Executive has left S4C. The Authority’s Members would like to thank Iona Jones for her service to S4C. There will be no further comment.

The sense of an organisation flailing in a mire of its own making was not helped when Arwel Ellis Owen, the Authority’s temporary replacement for Jones, managed to fluff an interview with Steve Hewlett on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Media Show’. Having been uncomfortable throughout (although making the good point that BARB figures deliberately don’t count the audience for children’s strand Cyw, thus making it look like nobody at all is watching over a quarter of the channels’ output), Ellis Owen was caught completely on the hop when Hewlett produced the interim Chief Executive’s official CV. The CV suggested that Ellis Owen had been Editor of Panorama and Newsnight. This came as news to Hewlett, who actually was editor of Panorama for several years. Ellis Owen seemed unable to answer the point.Source: The Western Mail The sense of drift at S4C has begun to feel more like it being an organisation in freefall. (The Authority later said that it did not consider Ellis Owen’s CV to be an issue and that they had not read the sentence in question as implying he was Editor of the programmes.)

S4C is a power house for television production not only in Wales but also in the UK as a whole. The channel has many hours to fill and nobody to commission material from except the BBC and the independent sector. This provides both BBC Cymru-Wales and the indies with a steady stream of commissions that keep facilities ticking over throughout the year and has helped propel BBC Cymru-Wales-produced English-language drama on to prime time BBC-1. With S4C spending a quarter less on original production, which won’t bother BBC Cymru-Wales at first, the 32 indies are facing a massive drop in workload and are likely to see job losses and closures.

Meanwhile, S4C will have to schedule more repeats. With the channel already under fire for the large drop in viewers since the end of the C4 retransmissions, repeats can only lead to further falls in viewing figures and that will provide more impetus to the politicians who would like to see television channels sink-or-swim in the market. But then the lesson of WWN’s failure in the early 60s would need to be relearnt: free-to-air channels in minority languages don’t swim. They sink.

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