Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


2.  Memorandum submitted by Equity

A.  DIGITAL BROADCASTING

  1.  Equity would wish to make it clear that we want digital broadcasting to be successful and recognise it has the potential to increase the earning and employment opportunities for our members. We have reached an understanding on a national UK basis with the BBC and ITV companies as to how performers will be remunerated for the exploitation of their work on any new channels. At the time of making their submission we have been unable to do so with S4C. Their initial position that performers should receive no additional payments was regrettable and reaching an amicable agreement in those circumstances has proved difficult. However, Equity is committed in principle to doing so and will continue to participate in discussions with S4C to that end.

  2.  Equity's reservations about digital broadcasting in general is that the broadcasters' rush to embrace the new technology is well ahead of the viewing public's desire to watch or pay for it; and that as a consequence significant amount of money are being diverted from programme making budgets and redirected to pay for the establishment costs of digital transmission.

  3.  This has been particularly evident at S4C. The Authority's digital plans were announced in October 1996. Ever since then Equity has expressed public and private concerns at the implications they have on the long term viability of public service broadcasting in Wales.

  4.  The fundamental concern is very simple. S4C currently broadcasts an average of 33 hours a week on a turnover of £80-85m. From November 1 1998 they aspire to increase the hours to well over a hundred as their draft schedule provides for a full service between the hours of 7am and 12 midnight. They will have no additional resources with which to do this.

  5.  It is likely that, initially at least, they will have reduced resources. Digital technology has not inconsiderable establishment and revenue costs, and the effect on the station's advertising income is unknown. It would be reasonable to assume that given that there will be a large overall expansion of channels, the competition for advertisers will be extremely keen; and there must be a question mark over how successful S4C will be in maintaining, let alone increasing their current levels.

  6.  S4C will be producing three times the programme output on the same or slightly reduced income. How can this be achieved without cutting costs which will lead to a lowering of wages, job opportunities and programme quality?

  7.  Over the next two years it is conservatively estimated that there will be a tenfold increase in the number of channels available to viewers. The most successful will have to be the most distinctive. S4C's strength is that it provides a unique service within Wales as a mouthpiece for national identity. If however as a result of the pressures to deliver a service far more expansive than it can afford, S4C has to compromise its distinctive nature by replicating its English language counterparts in producing lowbrow programming, where will that leave the station's individuality? The fact that S4C will be producing populist programmes in the Welsh language may not be enough. The question being asked is why would viewers want to watch poor quality programmes in Welsh when they will be available in English on many other channels? We are not arguing that S4C should ignore new technology but it is not necessary for a massive expansion of hours at this early stage. Given their financial situation we would prefer to see a more gradual development of the service as resources allow.

  S4C's future lies in being a high quality broadcaster in an unchallenged niche market. Their current policies put that status in jeopardy.

  8.  Also cause for concern are S4C's commercial digital plans. They have set up S4C Digital Network (SDN) which has successfully bid for half of one multiplex and will run a variety of services including a pre-school nursery channel, a Gaelic channel, and a Wildlife Channel. We are unclear despite having met with S4C Executives what current resources are being committed to this commercial activity. It is understood that profits from the success of SDN will be put back in to S4C's core service but it is more likely for a number of years that there will be losses rather than profits and will it be a case of S4C's core service subsidising SDN until SDN becomes profitable?

  9.  The BBC and more particularly ITV appear to be more cautious in their approach to digital services. BBC Choice launches imminently and the implications for Wales are good in that there will be capacity for BBC Wales to provide a complementary service to their main analogue programming. The implications for performers is negligible however as the programme budgets are extremely low and therefore the likelihood of their being any other than low cost production is remote.

B.  THE WELSH ASSEMBLY (ACCOUNTABILITY AND NATIONAL IDENTITY)

  1.  Equity would wish to see the work of the Assembly made as transparent to the public as possible through the joint mediums of radio and television. We recognise however, that there could be cost implications in this. We would be concerned if money had to be diverted from other strands of programming in order to provide a comprehensive service. This would appear to be an area where co-operation between the BBC, HTV and S4C to provide a complementary and not competitive service could emerge. This would be in the interests of all parties. Unfortunately such collaboration has been rare in the past. There are two nightly news programmes competing head to head both of which spend large amounts on self promotion; and it is undoubtedly the case that the competition over domestic rugby coverage pushed up the price to an extent where S4C were forced to cut back on other strands of programming to pay for it. We would also want to guard against HTV being able to count extensive coverage of the Assembly against their requirement to provide a certain number of hours of regional broadcasting.

  2.  Equity has already submitted a proposal to the National Assembly Advisory Group that a Subject Committee dealing exclusively with the cultural industries should be set up. As we now know, the Groups final report has not gone into this sort of detail and the remit of the six or so Subject Committees will emerge from discussions when the Assembly is elected. We will still continue to propose that the cultural industries (of which broadcasting is a constituent part) is treated in this way. We also propose that a sub-Committee on broadcasting be created with the dual role of monitoring the coverage of the Assembly and holding accountable the broadcasters in Wales for the way in which the television and radio industry develops.

  3.  If it has done nothing else, the devolution vote has brought into focus the fact that Wales can now take responsibility for its own affairs in many of the most important sectors of public life. Broadcasting is an area which affects the life of the people in Wales on a day by day basis. There is a growing realisation however that none of the decisions relating to the big issues in broadcasting in Wales can be regulated here. The BBC is run by a Board of Governors in London who are in turn accountable to Parliament. There is one National Governor for Wales who will invariably have limited influence. In Wales itself the Broadcasting Council remains a remote group whose appointment is discretionary and whose work is unpublicised. We would welcome discussions about how either situation can be changed. HTV is accountable to its shareholders and to the ITC while S4C is grant aided directly by the Department of Culture Media and Sport. Both organisations could be encouraged to take interim measures to hold open debates on a regular basis round Wales discussing general operational matters. There have been such meetings but held only on a sporadic basic. Although in areas like the appointment of the recent S4C Chair the Secretary of State for Wales undoubtedly has an interest, the perception remains that S4C is a political minefield which the politicians enter at their peril. Consequently it has been the subject of the lightest of light touches.

  4.  The Secretary of State for Culture has made it known that he would wish in the fullness of time for the responsibility for S4C to pass to the Secretary of State for Wales and presumably from there to the Assembly. The Welsh Secretary does not agree arguing that S4C's funding would then come under much tighter scrutiny and could be adversely affected as it would come into direct competition with health and education. We would concede this possible outcome, but we believe on balance that perpetuation of the present situation where the DCMS holds the money, and the Welsh Office holds the influence is unsatisfactory. We would want the Assembly to discuss in detail taking over the responsibility for S4C at the earliest opportunity.

  5.  At any event there does now appear to be an opportunity for fresh thinking on the way in which broadcasting can be regulated in Wales and we would urge that that opportunity is seized over the next two to three years.

  6.  Current trends in broadcasting pose a huge threat to the concept of regional or National regional identity. Over the next few years the transmitter based system will be increasingly irrelevant as a means of delivering television signals, to be replaced by either cable or satellite systems. The latter the more efficient and likely to predominate but it does not recognise national boundaries. Programmes broadcast from satellites can generally be received over a global area. Under the barrage of images coming from international broadcasters, a small National Region such as Wales will do well to retain its identity.

  7.  As stated above, many fear that S4C's increase in hours hampered by their limited resources will lead to a "dumbing-down" of programme content which will be at odds with its Public Service Charter requiring a broadcaster to provide a range of programmes reflecting all aspects of a nation's life and culture. The types of programme which cement a channel's reputation are drama and documentary both of which are expensive.

  8.  BBC Wales has in recent years invested heavily in documentaries and feature series which show Wales to Wales. It remains to be seen whether the financial infrastructure of the Corporation will enable sufficient funds to continue to be released for this type of programming.

  9.  At a Conference in March 1997 organised by the Voice of the Viewer and Listener, the then Vice Chair of HTV openly warned that new technology would put huge new financial pressures on the broadcasting system and that regional programming was likely to be the first casualty. He felt it was a "luxury" ITV companies would not be able to afford. The fragmentation of advertising revenue would lead to the need for ITV in particular to maximise its audience at every conceivable opportunity. Regional programming, other than news, cannot be guaranteed to deliver the size of audience attractive to advertisers in the way film and network drama can. Regional programmes will therefore become marginalised if they are to continue at all.

C.  EMPLOYMENT ISSUES

  1.  The expansion of the broadcasting (and film) industry in Wales since 1982 has brought a commensurate increase in employment opportunities. Over the last three to four years however this expansion has ceased and there is evidence that employment in the sector is now in decline. Certainly the ratio between short term and permanent contact work has radically shifted.

  2.  Equity members are by nature employed on short rather than long term contracts and therefore it is difficult to discern major changes in trends of employment but the statistics that do exist support the above conclusion. Between 1995 and 1998 the total artists earnings for new programmes S4C make rose by only 0.3 per cent from £2.568 million to £2.578 million. Allowing for inflation this clearly represents a reduction in real terms. The earnings from repeated material have also fallen. Anecdotal information from individual actors is consistent. Fees are being offered in 1998 that are generally the same as, or in some case even lower than, those offered four years ago. More and more actors regardless of their status or experience are being offered fees at or only marginally above the minimum rates negotiated by the union and the producers' organisation. In 1993 over 90% of actors would be offered fees well above minimum rates. That figure has now halved.

  3.  In our view there are three primary reasons for this fall. Firstly S4C has changed its programming priorities. Secondly the cost of digital has required the Authority to put money aside which would otherwise be spent on programming; and thirdly the cost of securing the highly publicised domestic rugby deal in partnership with HTV was far more disruptive to other budgets than S4C is prepared to admit.

  4.  It has been a commonly held view that the workers in the theatre have been subsidising the industry for years. The same is now applying to public service Welsh language broadcasting.

  5.  The same trend in Welsh language programming is evident at the BBC and HTV. Core employment at BBC Wales is via the soap opera Pobol y Cwm which moved to a five day a week schedule exactly ten years ago. At that time well over 20 actors were on full time contacts. The number has now fallen to single figure. HTV invested in an employment intensive drama series for 10 years but when Dinas came to an end it was not replaced.

  6.  Employment in English language drama at BBC and HTV has been extremely patchy. The BBC's failure to develop and exploit a successful drama series based in Wales is deeply regrettable. The last drama produced by BBC Wales which even ran to a second series was District Nurse some 16 years ago. Since then there have been a number of false dawns, the most recent of which Tiger Bay, was clearly intended as a long running series reflecting contemporary Wales. It did not capture the imagination of the public or more importantly London drama executives. As a result drama development in Wales has been piecemeal and very often when a project has been developed using (invariably) London based independent production companies, there is little if any involvement of indigenous actors. This has been a running sore for years. When employment opportunities do occur in Wales, Welsh based artists are the last to benefit. The only Executive to address this in recent times was Karl Francis who organised seminars and workshops to unearth and develop local talent but his term of office as Head of Drama was short lived. The current fear is that London is so disillusioned with the general quality of product produced by BBC Wales that a substantial or long running commission is unlikely to materialise in the foreseeable future. Eighteen months ago, BBC Wales put forward a bi-media approach to radio and television development. Equity and the Writers Guild urged a re-think as we feared that radio would suffer as the junior partner. We are pleased that this approach has not been pursued and that good quality radio work which is often disregarded because of its lower profile, has continued to be produced. We hope that the recent changes in Radio 4 scheduling will not impact adversely on this.

  7.  HTV's English language employment record has been extremely poor. Obtaining network commissions prior to the re-formation of ITV in 1990 was difficult, but it was expected smaller franchise holders would benefit from easier access to the Network Centre. This has not happened in practice. Virtually all the network commissions made by HTV have been via HTV West or HTV International. In its 30 years existence the only network drama ever made by HTV Wales was "We are Seven". HTV argue that they are the only ITV Company with a commitment to regional drama; and while that is true it has still not resulted in major employment. A pattern has developed whereby HTV fills 50 per cent of the required hours with new make and the remaining 50 per cent with repeats. This practice was criticised by the ITC in their Annual Review three years ago.

  8.  The change of ownership at HTV has led to interesting new developments which gives cause for optimism. The new owners, United News and Media, have committed to a Head of Drama Development who is in turn committed to a doubling of drama output over the three stands; English regional, Welsh language and Network. The success of this policy depends entirely on HTV being given concessions by the ITC when their franchise is reviewed in November. Equity was prepared to support HTV in its approach to the ITC on the clear understanding that any saving in the annual Levy would be re-invested in programming and not be used for the benefit of shareholders. The issue of local employment is relevant here also as we believe it is crucial that any increase in jobs should go primarily to indigenous performers, and we will continue to lobby on that basis.

  9.  Given the need of all broadcasters to produce more cost effective programming, it is strange that more use has not been made of back to back filming in Welsh and English. At a time when it would be reasonable to expect companies to be actively seeking co-production partners, the number of such productions in Wales has reduced. The success of A Mind to Kill/Heliwr is evidence that such a project can be successful and because it does not cost double to make a project in two languages, it provides an effective way of investing resources. The BBC in particular has been very unimaginative in this area. There were a number of drama series in the 1980's which with a modicum of extra investment could have provided a network profile as well as material for S4C. About three years ago BBC Wales announced a full scale examination of the possibilities of more dual language work but nothing has come of it.

  10.  It is vital that Wales has an available pool of gifted capable quality creative artists to enable the broadcasters to produce first class programmes. The drain of such artists away from Wales will continue if either employment opportunities do not expand and/or when they arise they are not given to those who are locally based.

Christopher Ryde

Welsh National Organiser

28 September 1998





 
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