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For Welsh language media to flourish, S4C needs popular support

Ron Jones responds to criticism of the Welsh broadcaster S4C with an analysis of its prospects
Ron Jones
22 April 2010

S4C needs to change, not to placate enemies, but because it always has to change. It's there to provide Welsh-speakers with the services they want and need in a media market where commercial revenues are insufficient to do the job.We have never lived up to our responsibility to help S4C define what it is for in this new media age.S4C removed the conflict between Welsh speakers who wanted television in Welsh and non-Welsh speakers who equally validly wanted network programmes.By combining Welsh and Channel 4 programmes a compromise was reached that, ignoring a few scraps over racing, worked for all. This issue has disappeared with the technology constraints that caused it.S4C's problem today is finding the money and talent to fill what could technically be a 24-hour channel. They have had to settle for a high proportion of repeats. Viewers don't like it but we have to accept that this approach is the only way to provide any Welsh-only channel. Funding to expand the number of hours of Welsh-language programming is not there.Anyway, there is a finite pool of creative talent and we would struggle to supply significantly greater hours of value or quality.A long-term problem is the imbalance in public funding for English and Welsh television in Wales. Since devolution we have seen a new consensus on a bilingual Wales. Welsh is, for all practical purposes, an official language and the equal treatment of Welsh and English is widely accepted. Equality has a price that one day we will be asked to pay.The breadth and depth of English language television for Wales compares very badly with that in Welsh. English language television is a key component of creating the new Wales and reinforcing the feeling of what it is to be Welsh. The Welsh language will not survive a Wales that no longer know or understands what it is to be Welsh. ITV are reluctant to retain their licence obligation to Wales. The BBC may see its commitment to Wales as being more easily served by shipping in network productions than by making programmes for Wales.There is little chance of any future government making additional funds available for public service broadcasting. Improving the English service in Wales can come from one of two sources: S4C's existing funding or the BBC.The Welsh language cannot afford to share S4C's revenues but in order to protect them we need to campaign for a fundamental realignment of the BBC's spending. The BBC has the money and the three nations need it.Recent controversy about viewer numbers should not be dismissed just as the effect of digital scheduling. Over the years, S4C audiences have fallen and the average age of viewers remains disproportionately high. As viewers we have a role here. Do we really want the channel? At the moment we are voting no on our remote controls. S4C has indicated it wants to consult about what Welsh-speakers want. We must help them identify what today's S4C should be.It has to concentrate on the most essential parts of public service programmes. Welsh speakers have little allegiance to programmes just because they are in Welsh and S4C has to provide a service where it has a competitive advantage over the hundreds of channels available to Welsh speakers.This means prioritising Wales, its news and news-based programmes, current affairs, events and sport. When you add a range of public service programmes from history to culture many familiar factual programmes and entertainment may have to go. Defining what we want and need is a job for us all. We will have to think inclusively, making sure that S4C is for all Welsh-speakers, not just those with the most strident voices. Many of our Welsh-language institutions and services have been hijacked for the benefit of too few of our people.There are new challenges. There is a shortage of on-line content and services. The BBC has become the most popular provider of on-line services in the UK. In Welsh, not only are there no such services but we know there is permanent market failure. These services can only be provided by the public purse.No institution other than S4C has the money or the opportunity to fill this void. It has not historically been seen as S4C's job but if we don¹t safeguard Welsh as an online language then it can never claim its place in the modern world. If S4C was to prioritise, online money could only come from television programmes. It's a tough call but a call we have to make.S4C has a major commitment to children's programming but our children are even more promiscuous than their parents in their choice of content.Language is a secondary consideration. Meanwhile there is a shortage of modern educational content in Welsh, both in television programmes and online content. Should S4C tie more of its offering to the curriculum?S4C is about more than television. It is a weapon in safeguarding the language and the towns and villages of Wales where Welsh is still a genuine community language. It is against these priorities that history will judge S4C, but they will not be judged alone. Welsh speakers have to share the responsibility. Each generation will get the S4C it deserves. There is little evidence our generation is engaged in the debate.

This article was first published in Welsh by Barn. An English version was published in The Guardian. It is reproduced here with the author's permission.

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