Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report

7.  Memorandum submitted by S4C


  S4C welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Committee's Inquiry into Broadcasting at a time of huge technological and constitutional change. As a public service broadcaster, S4C is fully committed to making the most of the opportunities arising from these changes for the benefit of television viewers in Wales. In all our efforts to take advantage of these opportunities we have put Wales and its people at the very heart of our thinking and activities. As part of S4C's contribution to the European and UK debate on the implications of change on the future of broadcasting we have submitted responses to numerous consultation documents. Our aim in so doing has been to ensure that the Welsh perspective and Welsh experience have been taken into account. The children of Wales in the 1990s will be part of a world-wide communications revolution in the number of television services and in the use of the computer. It is important for Welsh culture and the Welsh language to be part of this revolution. A new generation will be given a chance to bring freshness and excitement to the screen as we develop new types of services on digital channels. The production industry in Wales will be able to use its proven creativity and ingenuity to enter the multi-channel environment and compete in the international market.

  As television enters the digital age, hundreds of channels will be available. Large, wide screens will deliver a cinematic experience in the home and high quality video discs will be used as a means of acquiring and keeping favourite films. Viewing patterns will change as loyalty to three or four channels is replaced by the ability to browse across dozens. Increasingly, television will be used in conjunction with the telephone and the computer to enable the viewer to interact with the programme provider, to take part directly in programmes and to make choices, express opinions and send information from their homes.

  The task for S4C now is to define the nature of the services which we might offer to viewers and to create for ourselves a unique identity in the multi channel age.


  In planning for the future we have been guided by three principles:

    —  To add value to the lives of viewers in Wales

    —  To ensure that our public funds are used to provide a Welsh language service

    —  To recognise that the intention of undertaking any commercial activity is to raise income in order better to enable the fulfilment of the core functions.

  Digital television is an opportunity to build on S4C's peak-time service in the Welsh language and extend the provision in the Welsh language to other times of day, broadcasting from midday to midnight. The requirement to carry Channel 4 programmes has meant that opportunities to broadcast Welsh language material during the day and later evening have been scarce. Channel 4 will be available as a separate digital service. Therefore there will be substantial opportunities for S4C to increase the range of the Welsh language offering, for example doubling the hours of children's programming, new and innovative programmes for young people, more current affairs, sport and arts coverage. The extended hours will offer alternative viewing opportunities which will be of particular value to Welsh speaking viewers in mixed language homes where peak hours' viewing may normally be in English. Sub-titling has made Welsh language programmes accessible to English speakers and will be further developed. Full use will be made of the potential of digital to increase viewer response and participation.


  One of the ways in which S4C proposes to add value to the lives of viewers in Wales is through a new joint venture with BBC Wales called the Wales Digital College which is designed to exploit the educational potential of digital technology. Most of the morning hours on S4C Digital will be allocated to broadcasts by the Digital College backed up by a network of support for lifelong learning which we and the BBC are developing in conjunction with a wide range of education providers in Wales. The aim of the Digital College is to provide a gateway to education and training through broadcasting and digital technology. We believe this will be a major contributor in the drive towards improving the skills base of the people of Wales together with increasing learning opportunities of all kinds. Broadcasters and education experts working together can help achieve public policy objectives. The Digital College will make the best possible use of every communication medium available to it at any one time. As digital television technology develops and penetration increases, every opportunity will be taken to add relevant and effective services to the television provision. Television will also be used to attract and support new students. Digital College material will appear on S4C Digital and on the BBC's digital services. Viewers will be able to access the support services offered either while the programme is on air or at another time.


  S4C will provide an extensive Welsh language service for viewers during the Assembly elections which will be on a par with the level of coverage available during the General Election. The service will be provided by a range of suppliers, including the BBC and HTV. Programme providers will be required to produce items which seek to inform and educate voters about the election, the voting methods and other related issues.

  Coverage of the Assembly itself will be included in the news and current affairs output and in magazine programmes on S4C. In additional to the current political programmes, highlights of the Assembly will be available in a weekly half hour programme. This output will be seen on S4C's existing analogue service and simulcast on S4C's digital service.

  In addition, S4C has reserved sufficient digital capacity so that the possibility exists to provide a second public service from Wales. This second service would make it possible to offer uninterrupted live coverage of the proceedings of the Assembly. This service could start to coincide with the opening of the Assembly. The decision as to whether the Assembly should be broadcast on this channel is not for S4C alone to make. The views of other parties have and will continue to be sought. However, S4C believes that this second service would make a valuable contribution to ensuring that the Assembly and its proceedings are as accessible and open to people throughout Wales and indeed in the rest of the UK.


  S4C, with the BBC and HTV, submitted a joint working paper to the Public Access and Communications Group of the National Assembly Advisory Group in February. A Broadcasting Task Group was established by the Welsh Office and S4C participated in the constructive discussions that followed on issues relating to rules of coverage, space and technical requirements and management, funding and procurement. These discussions were undertaken on the basis of partnership between the Welsh broadcasters and the Welsh Office. S4C believes the proposed arrangements are in keeping with the desire to make the Assembly open and accessible and recognise the importance of the broadcasters' role in providing a bridge between the Assembly and the general public.


  S4C's news and current affairs coverage of the Assembly will be available to viewers in Wales on both analogue and digital services. The digital service will be available on all three platforms—terrestrial, cable and satellite. Whilst estimates for digital coverage have varied, we believe that by the end of March 1999, it will be possible for all viewers in Wales to receive a digital service from one or other of the digital platforms. Over half will be able to receive a digital service from more than one platform, and the viewer will therefore have a choice as to which platform best suits their particular requirements. S4C's digital terrestrial service begins in November this year. The "must carry" provision for cable franchise holders ensures that S4C's digital services will be freely available to cable viewers in Wales. In order to ensure that universality is achieved at the earliest possible opportunity, S4C will also be providing its services on satellite. This will be important in order for S4C digital to reach parts of Wales which will not enjoy digital terrestrial distribution, at least in the early years of roll-out. The cost of providing the digital service on satellite has been borne by S4C in the belief that it is a necessary part of public service broadcasting's commitment to universality. It will also bring a contingent bonus of facilitating S4C digital's reception amongst the estimated 400,000 Welsh speakers living in other parts of the UK.


  Whilst universality of coverage can thus be achieved, the question of affordability remains. The market will maximise the affordability of receiving equipment to the public. However, there will be a residual proportion of the population who will be unable to afford the new equipment. The Government is aware of the benefits of an early switch-off of analogue, not least the potential revenue which is likely to derive from eventual sale or licensing of the transmission frequencies which will then be made available. There is a case for significant incentives to be provided to those viewers of analogue who would not otherwise be able to upgrade.


  Given that the National Assembly for Wales will have political responsibility for economic development policies, S4C is keen to ensure that the Assembly takes full account of broadcasting as a significant industry and employer in Wales. As an indigenous business S4C is fully committed to investing in and strengthening the independent production sector in Wales, and exploiting the opportunities presented to Wales' creative talents by digital technology, in particular, the demand for content in the multi-channel environment. S4C is already successful in the field of international co-production and international programme sales. As in other Welsh industries, the broadcasting sector needs to develop SMEs, to increase entrepreneurial skills, to enable the development of new products and more efficient firms. We are pleased that media has already been identified by the Welsh Office as part of its economic strategy "Pathway to Prosperity" and that the independent television production sector and the Welsh animation industry are cited as considerable strengths which have derived from the establishment of S4C.


  Firstly, it may be useful to set the funding of Welsh language broadcasting in Wales in a UK context. The broadcasting industry in the United Kingdom has an annual turnover of nearly £4.5 billion. S4C received £72.2 million in 1997. As of 1 January 1998, the 1997 figure is adjusted in line with inflation. There will therefore be no increase in public funding to meet additional costs or fund new plans more generally. The BBC, Channel 4 and ITV have been assisted by various Government measures to fund digital development. Nevertheless, S4C has taken on the funding challenge in partnership with the independent production sector by seeking to modernise the industry and to encourage efficiency in the production process.


  S4C's record of its activities is presented to Parliament by the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority in the form of the Annual Report and Accounts. We expect and would welcome a discussion with the National Assembly for Wales based on the Annual Report and Accounts as part of its remit to ensure the successful implementation of economic development policies. In the interests of full and proper debate all broadcasters in Wales should be encouraged to provide a similar level of detailed information to the Assembly as that contained in S4C's Annual Report and Accounts.


  The Welsh Fourth Channel Authority is an independent regulatory authority with a duty to operate its programme service in line with the ITC Programme Code. The Welsh language output is subject to regulation by the Authority on this basis. Since 75 per cent of the output contains Channel 4 programmes which have been prepared for a Channel licensed and regulated by the ITC, its main responsibility for this part of the output is the effect of rescheduling the programmes. Authority membership aims to reflect geographical spread, gender balance and a variety of interests and experience. The achievement of this aim has been strengthened by the introduction of an open appointments procedure. The current Chair and subsequent new members have been appointed following an open advertisement and interview. This transparent and accountable system has been implemented by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in conjunction with the Welsh Office. We anticipate that the current role of the Welsh Office may be adopted by the National Assembly for Wales.

  The impact of convergence has already resulted in wide-ranging debate both on a UK and European level on the future shape of regulation. New hybrid programming will use the web as well as conventional television; users will order, browse, call down material and chat on forums related to programmes. Similarly, a new breed of carriage emerges, where present telephone services, web services and digital television may not only share carriage but the way the consumer uses these services may actually converge.

  In spite of the complexities arising from convergence, we are not aware of any pressure to affect radical change in S4C's regulatory structure nor see any possible benefit to be gained from it. If all broadcasting regulation were to be centralised in one UK body, we would be concerned that the diverse interests and variety of opinion currently represented should not be confined to a single Welsh voice in a large, potentially unwieldy body. The same principle would apply to centralising regulation in Wales. The current model of self regulation is rigorous and clearly focused. It may interest the Committee to know that the current trend of thinking tends to be towards lighter-touch, self regulation as evidenced by both European and UK green papers on convergence.

  S4C, as a self-regulatory Authority, has also established a post-broadcast monitoring group. The group has an independent Chair who has a background in regulation. Issues, which are deemed important enough for further discussion, are referred to the S4C Authority which remains the ultimate arbiter. This pattern of self-regulation seems to work effectively.

  In conclusion, we think it desirable that the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority should retain responsibility for the regulation of programme content; and we welcome the prospect of the National Assembly for Wales assuming a role in ensuring S4C's accountability through the open appointment procedure and through discussion of the Annual Report and Accounts.

  S4C will contribute fully to any discussion or process by which the National Assembly seeks to form a view on future broadcasting policy in Wales and for the benefit of the people of Wales.

Iona Jones

Chief Assistant Director of Corporate Affairs

30 September 1998

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