In her IWA blog post, which discussed the BBC Director General (Tony Hall)’s recent speech in Cardiff, Angela Graham focused on references in his speech to English language television in Wales. According to Hall, “Despite BBC Wales’ very real success, we must also acknowledge that English language programming from and for Wales has been in decline for almost a decade”.
In this article, I will attempt to give an overview of some of the practical obstacles and challenges facing Wales in relation to television broadcasting (both in English and in Welsh) over the next few years, as we attempt to reverse this decline.
This week on Click on Wales
This week on Click on Wales we’ll be debating English language TV for Wales, asking ‘is it really in decline?’ and looking at how it can move forward.
Today: Hywel William outlines the facts and figures for the challenges facing TV broadcasting in Wales.
Tomorrow: Ruth McElroy calls for a plan of action for resolving BBC Wales and its decline in producing English language TV.
Thursday: Claire Hill says Wales should kick up a fuss about English language TV’s decline.
Wales’ share of spend on first-run originated network programming has steadily improved from 1.3% in 2007 to 3.5% in 2012 (with an increase in volume across the period of 1.7%) but there is no doubt that there has been a decline in English language programmes specifically for viewers in Wales. Ofcom’s 2013 Communications Market Report for Wales reported that spend on first run originated English language content for Wales reduced by 35% across the five year period from 2007 to 2012, the highest decrease across the UK nations. The £26 million, spent by the BBC and ITV in Wales during 2012 was also a drop of 3% on the previous year, although total spend specifically on non-news programmes increased by 8%, year on year. Wales also had the largest relative reduction in first-run originated hours across the nations, down by 24% since 2007, but it had the lowest fall in total cost per hour of 4%, from 2007 to 2012, compared the UK average reduction of 24%.
The success of BBC Cymru Wales in recent years in significantly increasing its network supply, with a raft of high profile dramas such as Dr Who, Casualty and Sherlock, has delivered significant economic benefits to Wales, particularly to the freelance industry based here, but there are concerns that this network content is largely ‘not culturally specific to Wales’.
Following the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review, the licence fee was frozen at £145.50 until the end of the Charter in 2017, with the BBC accepting new obligations to fund extra broadcasting-related activities. In response, the BBC implemented its Delivering Quality First (DQF) initiative, with BBC Cymru Wales required to implement cuts of 16%, between 2013 and 2017. One consequence of these cuts has been a reduction in the number of programmes shown on BBC 2 Wales. It is probably sensible for BBC Cymru Wales to focus on its main channel in this way, as BBC 1 Wales has now launched in high definition, while BBC 2 Wales remains as a standard definition service (despite the launch of BBC 2 HD). The BBC’s Charter is due to be renewed in 2016/17 and it is vital that Wales’ voice is heard in the debate running up to renewal.
The bulk of S4C’s funding now also comes via the BBC Trust from the licence fee, and the Welsh language broadcaster will also have a very legitimate interest in the Charter renewal process. The S4C Authority’s present Operating Agreement with the BBC Trust, which sets out the current level of funding to be provided by the Trust, also ends in 2016/17. In this context, it will also be essential to ensure the Secretary of State takes account of his duty to ensure ‘sufficient funding’ of the S4C service under Section 31 of the Public Bodies Act in any future discussions.
Meanwhile, ITV Wales’ licence has been renewed for a further 10 year period starting from January 2015. This new Channel 3 licence will be for Wales only (and will no longer include the West of England as was the case in the past). It is, perhaps, a reflection of the more stable position that ITV plc finds itself in, bolstered by stable or growing advertising revenues, that the new licence will include the same programme obligations for Wales as previously, including four hours of news and an hour and a half of other programmes, including around 47 minutes per week of current affairs, with much of this output to be screened in or near peak.
However, one emerging issue is that along with BBC 2 Wales, ITV 1 Wales is only currently available as a standard definition (SD) service. Viewers in Wales watching ITV 1 HD currently see news and other programmes from the midlands rather than from Wales. In 2013, penetration of HD ready TVs had reached 64% of homes in Wales, although only 39% were actually able to view HD channels. But if this growth continues, then by the time of the next National Assembly elections in 2016, the majority of viewers in Wales could be watching ITV 1 HD, and they will have to remember to switch back to ITV 1 Wales (SD) in order to follow coverage of the campaign or indeed receive any news about Wales. Will the prospect of ITV gaining coverage rights for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, which last time round delivered huge peak time audiences, offer sufficient commercial incentive for the ITV Wales service to be upgraded to HD?
The third review the provision of Public Service Broadcasting in the UK by Ofcom is scheduled to go ahead shortly and its Terms of Reference were published in June. However, the review, which is due to report its conclusions by Summer 2015, is likely to be a shorter than its predecessors. Despite this the review’s scope will have been extended, by the Digital Economy Act, to consider the provision of public service content online, including in Wales, programming that can be viewed via the BBC’s i-Player, ITV Player and S4C’s Clic service.
Until recently, households in many areas of rural Wales would struggle to access video on demand content but the roll out of high speed broadband across Wales, via the Superfast Cymru initiative is very significant, offering the prospect that by June 2016, at least 96% of premises in Wales will be able to access minimum download speeds of 24 Mbps. It’s an ambitious project and a potential game changer, in that on-line delivery will be able to substitute for conventional broadcast TV. This could open the door for some significant and potentially disruptive technologies. Already Netflix offers an on demand movies and premium content service for just five pounds per month, which has significantly undermined the Sky Movies subscription model in terms of accessibility and cost.
Prominence on electronic programme guides has been one mechanism by which governments and regulators could offer incentives for broadcasters like ITV to continue to be a public service broadcaster. But what will be the impact of Apps on smart TVs where viewers can by-pass EPGs and go straight to their content of choice?
Each smart TV manufacturer has its own proprietary software platform for developing Apps but standardisation is occurring via, for example, the Android and iOS operating systems. Owners of Apple TV devices can watch any content on their iPhones or iPads on their TVs and S4C has updated its Clic App to ensure that it will work on these platforms. However, the new ITV News app has sidestepped this requirement and does not need to be downloaded via the Apple store. S4C has also negotiated to have a presence on a number of other web based platforms such as TV Catch-Up and more recently Facebook. However, the BBC’s iPlayer is already available on most smart TVs, reflecting the BBC’s scale, reach and impact. By May 2013, BBC i-Player attracted 181 million TV requests, a 31% increase, year on year. S4C’s content will also be available via the BBC iPlayer by the autumn ensuring that it avoids the cost of having to develop bespoke Apps for each of the smart TV manufacturers.
Of course, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective about the current volume of ondemand, online viewing and Ofcom data suggests that linear live TV has remained remarkably resilient to date, with 88% of viewers across the UK watching live TV every day. During 2013, viewers in Wales watched an average of 4.5 hours per day, the highest amount of the UK nations, while just 6% of homes in Wales claimed to have a smart TV, although this is double the number in 2012.
Looking to the future, the next World Radio Communication conference will be held in November 2015 and along with developments at a European level, it could decide the fate of the current 700 MHz band of frequencies currently used to carry Freeview digital terrestrial TV in the UK. The future use of UHF spectrum (running from around 600 Mhz to 1 Ghz) will be a major challenge for policy makers as they try to balance the future needs of mobile broadband data and voice communications with digital television services.
Television broadcasting in Wales therefore faces a number of challenges, ranging from regulatory issues and government policy to questions around emerging technologies related ultimately to our rapidly growing fixed and mobile connectivity needs. In the forthcoming debate over the future of English language television broadcasting in Wales, it will be essential to take these factors into account.