The S4/C problem 

10 September 2010

Now is not a good time for Welsh television broadcaster S4/C, which has just been given an ultimatum by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt to draw up a financial plan for survival in four weeks or face the consequences, whatever they may end up being.

Of course all the recent publicity surrounding the alleged boardroom turmoil at S4/C hasn’t helped, but when faced with a requirement to move in several directions at once (remaining culturally distinctive whilst being popular at the same time), it’s no surprise that there should be numerous disagreements as to how best to move forward at this time.

It may be theoretically true that S4/C could have tried harder to reach out to its Welsh-speaking core viewers, but a marginal increase in viewer numbers alone wouldn’t be sufficient to solve its problems; everyone needs to remember that television production is an expensive business whatever the language.

This is also a sobering reminder of what might happen if funding for the BBC were to come out of general taxation as opposed to a separate TV licence fee, namely the temptation to cut back would be too great to resist for any government along with the vastly increased risk of compromising the BBC’s reputation for being relatively unbiased.

Despite S4/C’s attempts to remain viable under the current circumstances, its future looks increasingly bleak if it cannot afford to sustain anything like its current broadcasting schedule. Obviously the channel has to make programmes that people want to watch despite the language barriers that might exist.

Therefore justifying S4/C’s existence has never been harder despite its continuing importance (and greater significance) to Welsh culture in general; its cost per viewer has now become astronomical compared to many other services, and it’s this cost factor that is proving to be the major stumbling block.

One way forward for S4/C could involve some form of alliance or merger with another existing broadcaster; Channel 4 being a fairly obvious choice for a partnership given its past history and continuing public service remit, although of course there are limits to any assistance that would be available (if at all workable).

Such a partnership could result in either a dedicated service for Wales featuring Welsh and (possibly) English language programming that would still be expensive to produce despite improved economies of scale, or alternatively Channel 4 (for example) having a small number of regional Welsh language opt-outs.

Whether or not S4/C should also produce its own English language programming in order to entice more viewers is another issue entirely, but there would be an associated risk of viewers switching off when ‘difficult’ Welsh language programming is aired. (S4/C should know all about this having had experience with its mixed language analogue service.)

Plus of course there’s also the online-only option for S4/C’s programming, which is a route increasingly taken by specialist services hit by funding reductions such as Teachers’ TV, but Welsh language television is arguably still not yet ready for such a radical step and still wouldn’t solve the funding problem that faces the broadcaster.

Given the major obstacles that face any of these approaches, a partnership of any form is very unlikely to happen unless there were to be forced intervention on this issue. (Something that’s very unlikely to happen with the current government for ideological reasons alone.)

This also assumes that it’s impossible for the current government to come up with an alternative form of funding (either direct or indirect) for S4/C, like the previously-touted ‘top-slicing’ of the TV licence fee for such a purpose which still seems off the agenda (again, perhaps for ideological reasons).

Jeremy Hunt’s current position emphatically states that S4/C has to come up with its own plan first before it’s possible to move forward, which does imply that finding any ‘missing’ money from an alternative source to make up any deficit is totally out of the question (otherwise that option would have been offered before now).

Therefore it’s not too hard to conclude that the only long term solution might be for the BBC to produce a Welsh equivalent of the BBC Alba Scots Gaelic service, perhaps using what’s left of S4/C and its government grant to produce such a service.

This is something that the BBC would feel compelled to do anyway if S4/C were to close down altogether for whatever reason(s), but it would ensure the survival of Welsh language television broadcasting in some form as long as the BBC continues to exist as a public service broadcaster in its current state.

Such an option may not go down too well with certain members of the Welsh Assembly, but given the paucity of workable options this may end up being the only way forward for a viable, long term means of Welsh language television broadcasting in a multichannel environment.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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