One service, two areas, three audiences 

12 January 2015

19701221 Telegraph

A thoughtful piece from the Daily Telegraph’s Richard Last in 1970 about the troubles of serving a diverse area like Wales and the west of England.

As he points out, there are three distinct populations to be served within the catchment area: the English in England, the English-speaking Welsh people in Wales and the Welsh-speaking Welsh people in Wales. These three communities were mutually antagonistic on many points of culture, politics and class, but a quirk of geography meant that both the BBC and the ITA could not help but serve all three with one service.

Band IThe problem had existed as early as the BBC radio station 5WA in 1923. The low power meant that it was easily targeted to Cardiff and its environs. The popularity of the new medium meant that people strained to listen from further away. But Cardiff itself and out-of-region listeners to the south were largely English-speaking. A minority in the catchment area and the majority straining to hear 5WA to the north were Welsh-speaking. The politics of whether – and when – to include programming in Welsh was a nightmare.

The folding of the low-power individual BBC stations into the BBC Regional Programme in the 1930s brought no relief: the higher-power transmissions meant there was less bandwidth available. For the first 6 years of The Regional Scheme, Wales and west England were served by one BBC region – more political nightmares until a further frequency could be found, just in time for regional broadcasting to be suspended on the outbreak of World War II.

After the war, VHF television helped nobody either. The BBC had just 5 channels to broadcast on. With the distance VHF could travel, they could comfortably cover the vast majority of the population of the UK with just those 5. But poor old Wales and the west of England: stuck with just one transmitter covering both areas until space was found in the 1960s. The BBC celebrated by renaming BBC-1 in Wales to “BBC Wales”, a distinction that would last, in spoken announcements at least, into the 1990s. The same space constraints and one service/two areas/three audiences problem applied to Television Wales and West (TWW), stuck with providing a joint service on its one frequency until a second could be found late into its life.

UHF, with its drastically smaller transmitter coverage, made life easier for targeting a specific audience but made broadcasting a lot more technically difficult – Last points to the 6pm regional news slot, although other times of the day were similarly bedevilled by the need to break HTV up into 4 services (5 for the purposes of advertising – it was possible to advertise in north and west Wales, excluding the south, and vice versa).

But that still left the political – and ratings – problem of Welsh-language programming. If the Welsh-language programming was shown in peaktime, the majority English-speaking audience would desert in droves. If the programming was shoved out of the peak, to afternoons or late at night, the audience could be held but the Welsh-speakers would cry foul – and loudly.

In the end, as Last predicts, a merger of BBC and ITV Welsh-language programming placed on a new fourth channel in Wales alone would be the solution – but not for more than a decade. Interestingly, his prediction of the merger of “Westward” and “HTV” – or at least the shadows on the pavement of where these two companies used to stand – also happened. But not until the turn of the century and a change in economic shibboleths that has convinced both politicians and broadcasters that regionalism never mattered in the first place.


You Say

1 response to this article

Arthur Frayn 17 January 2015 at 5:22 pm

44 years after, the idea that was suggested in the above Daily Telegraph article that a Cymraeg language TV station should be an operation funded by both the licence fee and advertizing with joint programming from the BBC and ITV is what S4C has become, except that HTV’s successor ITV Broadcasting Limited is not involved, and the non-BBC programming is provided by a myriad of independent companies.

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