Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


Memorandum submitted by Elan Closs Stephens, Chair of S4C

QUALITY

  Following the BECTU submission, some points were raised on the issue of reduced budgets leading to reduced quality. We were given the opportunity to explain the economic arguments and viewer expectation for daytime programming during the hearing. However, the proof of the pudding, as they say, came during the Christmas period and I thought that it would be useful to update the committee.

  Gogs, our home produced animation, was shown on Boxing Day on the BBC1 network in a prime holiday slot. Our other animation, The Canterbury Tales, made in conjunction with BBC Wales and BBC2 was shown on BBC2 during the Christmas period to huge critical acclaim.

  Our documentary series Egypt presented by the Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, who happens to be a fluent Welsh speaker from Llanelli, has sold to 29 countries (including Egypt). The series brought together finance from French broadcaster Le Cinquieme and Discovery to enable Welsh producer John Gwyn to produce a series of outstanding quality for S4C which is also popular television and because of its quality attractive product in the international market.

  The point I wish to make is that these programmes, reaching highest international quality, were made by Welsh producers during the past 18 months, the same period as the new volume producing arrangements so derided by BECTU were in place. The quality of programmes produced for S4C itself over the Christmas period has not shown any quality reduction in comparison to previous years. Indeed the critics have reacted positively and the Western Mail critic in previewing S4C's Christmas schedule led with the headline that quality had not been sacrificed. By retaining quality S4C is able to attract co-funders to key projects and that not only ensures quality but also brings back money to the core function in an unprecedented way by dint of forceful selling to other networks. Huw Jones and I have spent time explaining to the unions that the "third way" is the reality of public service broadcasting at this time and that it is as important to understand the complexity of public/private funding and local/global markets in television as well as generally in our national life.

GENERAL FINANCES

  Again, this issue is not pertinent to the remit of the Committee, but the Committee might wish it to be addressed more thoroughly. S4C has a substantial figure at its disposal over £72 million plus its own commercial efforts, plus the BBC hours. I would wish to address these figures separately.

  S4C's commercial income is allowed and encouraged under the Broadcasting Act 1996. On the other hand this is not a legal requirement, it is only an opportunity. S4C, just like the BBC Worldwide operation, has taken this opportunity as a positive step and is actively trying to raise more income to top up the public purse. Once again, this is very much "third way" politics and is indicative of modern Britain where compromise resolutions are sought for age-old public/private disputes.

  Secondly, the BBC's national region, BBC Wales, has always been a Welsh language broadcaster since 1925. The £16 million spent by BBC Wales for programmes shown on S4C has always been for programmes produced by BBC Wales in its own headquarters employing its own staff and resources. Although the output has been shown on S4C's platform, the expenditure has always formed a substantial part of BBC Wales' employment and skills base. It is certainly not the case that S4C "receives" a sum of money from the BBC. It receives programmes that have already been made in-house using BBC staff. Understandably, the BBC is nowhere on record as wishing to withdraw from this arrangement, especially since it retains full editorial control. Thus the notional £16 million is the produce of another broadcaster on a different platform; much as we welcome and appreciate this contribution, it does not bring with it any firm editorial input.

  As for general overall financing, S4C has a substantial sum at its disposal, so it seems, a figure that amounts to over £70 million in grant aid alone. For a family wishing to raise its children with some Welsh language television programmes, however, the sum is hardly competitive. The BBC in Britain raises £2 billion through its licence fee. The overall figure for what appears in English on our screens including ITV, cable, etc, is £4.6 billion. Since all Welsh speakers are bilingual this is what a Welsh speaking family contends with on a daily basis in its efforts to maintain an interest in the language. Given the fact that the print media, from The Sun to Just Seventeen to Hello, is also promoting the starts of these shows in yet more lavish expenditure, the effort to maintain a minority language is the labour of Sisyphus who pushed a boulder up the mountain only to see it roll down again when his strength flagged.

  As S4C cannot buy ready made product, for example, films, situation comedy, drama series, elsewhere, all its efforts must be home grown. Therefore, 94 per cent of the programme budget is actually spent in Wales on its own producers. This is also true of HTV and the BBC who strive valiantly to maintain a distinct identity in their opt-outs from the main network. However, the British broadcasters can turn to situation comedies such as Friends or to drama such as the X-Files, or to Hollywood films without having to dub. These may well seem to be English language drama, but their effect on the national psyche and on national identity may well be interesting. Some years on, perhaps English language broadcasting will look to minority language broadcasting with a view to understanding its own dilemma.

  Unlike the BBC and HTV, S4C's entire programme budget is spent outside the head office. The money is dispersed throughout Wales creating jobs. Stephen Hill's study of the economic impact of the media assesses the expenditure as creating over 2,000 full time equivalent posts and over 3,000 posts in which some people work part time. These are not only producers and actors but also carpenters, drivers, caterers, etc, in other words ordinary people who are dependent on this sector as providing economic growth. The full information on this can be gleaned in WERU's Economic Impact Survey, which was mentioned to you in the briefing. S4C's economic impact is diversified throughout the whole of Wales and some of its exists in those areas of maximum deprivation.

  I trust that this gives some insight into the complex issues of broadcasting finances in Wales. These issues are complicated and are rendered even more so by being part of a debate within the BBC on its own past and its own future. As far as S4C is concerned, it was devolved in terms of its social and programme remit in 1982. Its future is now in Europe as a co-producer and leader of the pack. I am personally committed to S4C seeking an active role in the Council of the Isles for a minority language broadcasting advice bureau or symposium.

13 January 1999


 
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Prepared 11 May 1999