A guest post by Roger Williams, Deputy Chair of the Writers' Guild
Today’s announcement by Welsh language broadcaster S4C that they’re braced for cuts in their £100million grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will not come as a surprise to anyone working in television. The cuts will however – should they come to pass – be a blow not only to the industry in Wales but also to Welsh cultural life in general.
S4C was established in 1982 in order to commission and broadcast Welsh language television programmes. It was born at the same time as Channel 4 in an age when there were only three channels, and now sits in a digital landscape that has been transformed in the 28 years of S4C’s existence.
S4C is now one of hundreds of digital channels. It has grown into a fully digital station broadcasting within Wales on Freeview and Virgin, across the UK via Sky and on its website www.s4c.co.uk. Viewers today have far more choice and as a result viewing figures have fallen (as indeed have viewers for other ex-analogue channels.) While channels are born in this digital landscape to cater for target audiences S4C somehow has to cater for everyone with one channel. It’s a difficult job which wasn’t made easier by the DCMS’s refusal to award S4C additional funding to prepare for the digital switchover which was completed in Wales in March 2010. A standstill grant has meant more repeats and a further reduction in viewers as the audience for a programme is spread more thinly still.
The establishment of S4C marked the birth of the independent television industry. Small companies such as Tinopolis and Boomerang, set up around kitchen tables, have developed into major players in the UK industry.
Without S4C’s sustained investment in writers, actors, directors and technicians I doubt the BBC would have been able to bring Doctor Who and other major productions to Wales. It was largely because of the wealth of talent that had been nurtured and supported by the Welsh language broadcaster that the production of big name shows was possible.
While S4C’s programme budgets are smaller than those offered by English language broadcasters (an hour of original drama will be made for £220,000 for example), the quality of programming on the channel is consistently high.
S4C’s investment in children’s programming is second only to the BBC’s and its children’s programmes are sold around the world. (Fireman Sam, Superted, Hannah’s Helpline etc. were all originally commissioned by S4C and made in Wales.) It has launched actors such as Matthew Rhys and Ioan Gruffudd and supported film-makers like Marc Evans and Joanna Quinn. S4C programmes win awards internationally and its films have been nominated for Academy Awards.
Most importantly, perhaps, the channel is a platform for Welsh voices. While the BBC and other broadcasters consistently fail to represent modern Wales in its output, S4C does so in the Welsh language 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Programme makers are given a space in which to reflect Welsh society in ways no other TV channel does. When did the BBC for example last reflect modern Wales in a major network series? While Gavin and Stacey is partially filmed in Wales, it isn’t a reflection of life here. The recent BBC single drama A Royal Wedding was inexplicably made with non-Welsh actors struggling to capture a Welsh accent. Where is the coverage of Welsh politics? Where are the programmes reporting on the National Eisteddfod, one of Europe’s largest and oldest annual cultural festivals?
UK-wide broadcasters have failed us and it’s been left to S4C to quietly do this work for the 600,000+ fluent speakers of Welsh, its learners and non-Welsh speakers viewing with subtitles.
S4C was created after a long fight by a Thatcher administration. It would be ironic therefore should it be a Conservative administration that started to take an axe to the channel and stifle the work the channel has done not only in broadcasting terms, employment in the creative sector but also in its fundamental support of Welsh as a living language. The last census recorded a rise in the number of Welsh speakers for the first time in over 100 years. Not an accident, but a sign that bodies like S4C are working to protect and promote a minority language.
Update (24.05.2010): S4C has had its grant cut by £2 million this financial year, reports BBC News.