One service, two areas, three audiences 

12 January 2015 tbs.pm/5983

 

The West’s shot-gun wedding

 

Cutting from the Daily Telegraph

21 December 1970

ALL television stations are unique, but some, as George Orwell might have remarked, are more unique than others. Bending Orwell and the English language a bit further, the most unique of all must surely be Harlech, the ITV company serving Wales and the West.

For all practical purposes, Harlech, HTV, as it is now termed, is not one station but two, joined by the Severn Bridge. Like some televisual Austria-Hungary, it keeps its State in twin capitals, Cardiff on the Welsh side and Bristol on the English. In theory and in practice, some staff at both are interchangeable, but the distinct identity on either side of the Severn is unmistakable.

This, however, is only the beginning of Harlech’s mysteries. Other (larger) ITV companies maintain dual production centres; only Harlech operates what the chairman, Lord Harlech, calls its “own mini-network.”

By separating its VHF and UHF output, Harlech can in fact transmit on four different channels. Its main service (HTV 1), beamed from either centres via the Cardiff transmitter, covers both sides of the Severn on VHF. HTV 2 is a Welsh-language service, on a second VHF channel. Since its UHF transmitters came into operation last April and May, Harlech has now added HTV 3, a colour service for the Welsh, and HTV 4, a colour channel for Bristol and the West.

For most of the time the three junior HTV channels remain linked to the main service, opting out for particular programmes. The entire system can be seen working in top gear each weekday between 6 and S.35 p.m., when the news diaries — three of them — go out.

Like other television curiosities, this twinning of Wales with Bristol and Somerset in the ITV set-up has a partly technical origin. Transmitters take no account of language or culture, only geography. It was realised that a transmitter in the middle of the thickly populated South Wales coastal flat could beam equally powerfully across the Severn. So Television Wales and West, Harlech’s predecessor, received the dual franchise, taken over by Harlech in May, 1968.

Beyond technicalities lies economics. Most people agree that ideally Wales should have its own ITV company: they also recognise that it would probably not be viable. (An all-Welsh-language station, Wales West and North, appeared briefly in the 1960s and vanished without trace.)

Beyond everything else lies the more intractable problem of the Welsh Language. There are about 2¾ million people in Wales, of whom one quarter speak Welsh; next year’s census may show the proportion has dropped to one-fifth. To this vocal minority, Welsh is not just a language but the symbol of a threatened culture, a link with the whole of Welsh history. Its adequate representation in the broadcasting services is regarded as essential, even by many non-Welsh speakers.

Harlech, out of a total weekly output of between 12 and 14 hours, devoted 5½ hours to Welsh language programmes, and received a £400,000 annual rent rebate from the ITA in recognition of this. The BBC. with its much larger Welsh organisation (830 strong, compared to Harlech’s 475 overall staff), contributes about 7 hours, together with 13 hours of sound broadcasting (plus 5 and 15 hours respectively in English).

Economic facts

Questioned about the unusual basis of the operation, HTV executives profess to see no anomaly. Naturally enough: they have to make it work, and it gives them the second largest regional ITV company, with an income of £6.3 million, and nearly four million viewers, instead of two minnows.

Tony Gorard, Harlech’s managing director, emphasises what he sees as “the economic facts of life”: namely, that while some Bristolians may look culturally or sentimentally farther West, economically their strongest ties face them across the Severn.

From a programme point of view it would be difficult to demonstrate that either the Welsh or the Western English are the losers by the dual operation. The range and diversity of HTV programming are impressive. On the Bristol side plays are now being produced at the rate of one a month, often with a strong regional flavour. Light entertainment, political discussion, arts programmes, and strictly local “audience involving” programmes are strongly represented. In Cardiff, I was bombarded with documentaries about Welsh opera, Welsh poetry, and Welsh mining; I felt almost relieved they couldn’t show me the Welsh language programmes as well. The best were very good indeed, the least never less than enterprising. There seems little doubt that Harlech takes its dual responsibilities very seriously and is determined never to fall into the easy-going but profitable attitudes which lost TWW the franchise.

Yet, logically, it is difficult not to see the Wales-West marriage as an artificial one which, sooner or later, must be dissolved. The original, technical reasons for the union will disappear as VHF becomes obsolete; UHF requires many more transmitters (possibly 60, including repeaters, in Wales, because of the mountains). The kernel of the matter lies in cost, chiefly in the cost of the Welsh language programmes, which because of the small (about 600,000) audience and lack of advertising interest, can only be made on a subsidised bases. This ought not to be the responsibility of viewers in Bristol or Taunton.

One idea which has found increasing support in recent years is a merger between BBC and ITV Welsh interests, into a single autonomous station, financed partly from licence fees and partly from advertising. Another, supported by Harlech’s Welsh Programme Controller, Aled Vaughan, who considers continuing ITV-BBC competition essential, is that the second ITV channel in Wales (when it comes) could be given over to Welsh-language programmes.

On the Somerset side, the most likely solution would be a merger with another company. This is not to suggest, of course, a “takeover” of Bristol by Mr Peter Cadbury’s Westward company.

Perhaps a new, equal-partner-ship marriage could be arranged by the ITA. It would have to think about it, if not in 1976, then some day.

– Richard Last, Daily Telegraph, 21 December 1970

 

 

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.

A colourful map of the UK showing the 5 Band-I channels the BBC used

The BBC’s network of VHF Band-I transmitters by the early 1960s

The 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

4 responses 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.

Harald Stelsen 3 July 2023 at 8:21 pm

“By separating its VHF and UHF output, Harlech can in fact transmit on four different channels.”

Is this not yet another example of newspaper journalists making factually incorrect statements because it is easier for the readers to follow a simplified false account by using the active mood rather than the passive mood and also in promulgating the cherished false notion of the liberty of the contracted program companies to brodcast whatever they wanted?

The TV transmitters were owned and operated by the ITA (later IBA) so to be factually correct the above sentence should read “can in fact be transmitted”.

And of course the program content would only be transmitted unless it had been approved by the ITA/IBA (ie control by the state of what people were allowed to see on their TV screens, eg no LWT “The Guardians” for you viewers in Northern Ireland)

Harald Stelsen 3 July 2023 at 8:32 pm

“With the distance VHF could travel, they could comfortably cover the vast majority of the population of the UK with just those 5.”

In retrospect is it not because the imperative was to provide a service at the lowest possible cost which meant very high power transmitters sited in rural locations covering a large an area as possible?

If TV transmitter masts had been sited near to or within the main cities and had significantly much lower power then a more diverse service could have been provided but with the greater cost of number of transmitters and distribution lines.

However the BBC ethos that everyone should be predominantly listening to or watching a national service with a London-centric outlook has always prevailed.

Har 4 July 2023 at 5:33 pm

Attentive readers will have noticed the error in the posting above — it should have read “active voice … passive voice” not “mood”.

Apologies for this mistake in the incorrect use of grammatical terms.

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