A funding model for S4C ... and more

When I wrote this post about the funding of S4C a week or so ago, I had a fairly good idea of the sort of tactics Jeremy Hunt would use to try and bully the S4C Authority into accepting the cuts the ConDem coalition wants to impose on it. From what Betsan Powys has said here on her blog, and in this BBC report, it now looks as if he was every bit as much of a bully as I thought ... and a liar too!


     BBC, 21 September 2010

However, although it is quite clear to me that he tried to press ahead with his first round of illegal cuts (it is not clear whether that cut was made or whether he simply intended to pay that much less in the next DCMS payment) the situation was not helped by the attitude of the S4C Authority. Why on earth did they not make the position crystal clear to everyone back in May? Why on earth did they make statements about not "volunteering" the cuts? It is obvious they wouldn't have volunteered them, but the point at issue is whether they acquiesced to them. I have to say that it certainly appeared that they had. They make the mistake of preferring to keep everything behind closed doors rather than call Jeremy Hunt's bluff in public.

The lesson that they must learn is that there is plenty of support for S4C throughout Wales. Think, if even Peter Hain makes a point of voicing his opposition to the cuts, then it should surely be obvious that S4C is not as beleaguered as the Authority seems to think it is. Yes, of course Peter Hain is doing it primarily because he wants to give the Tories as much grief as possible, or even claim a scalp ... but so what? The point is that he and his party are prepared to fight these cuts alongside the rest of us.

And, as Blogmenai says in this post today, if Jeremy Hunt wants to change the law in order to be able to make these cuts, it means that Welsh Tory and LibDem MPs in Westminster are going to be forced to take sides. Will they vote for that change? Will they suddenly develop an embarrassing illness that forces them to be away from the Commons when the vote takes place? Or will they develop a spine? By letting this happen behind closed doors, S4C are letting too many politicians off the hook.


However, it has to be acknowledged that the funding of S4C is an issue that we need to look at in some detail. At a time of general cuts in public expenditure I don't expect any organization that receives public money not to come under scrutiny. My position was that S4C should not be singled out. The most obvious organization with which to compare it is the BBC ... so any cuts in funding for the two organizations should be broadly equivalent.

But I can't help but think that S4C has allowed itself to get too comfortable with its funding arrangements. One matter that has never adequately been addressed is the BBC's obligation to provide Welsh language programmes out of the licence fee we pay it.

When S4C was first set up in 1982 there were only three other free-to-air channels available (BBC1, BBC2 and ITV) plus non-peak Channel 4 programming. I'm afraid my memory is not good enough to remember how many hours programming was put out by the BBC each day back then. The very most it could have put out is 48 hours, but I'd be surprised if it was more than 36 hours. However I've just counted the total number of hours being broadcast today on the Freeview channels available in Wales. In total the BBC has broadcast 139 hours of programming to Wales, i.e. about four times as much as it broadcast in 1982.

But the BBC's obligation to provide Welsh language programmes to be shown on S4C hasn't changed. The legal requirement is 10 hours a week, although the BBC currently provide an additional two hours per week. In essence, the BBC's licence fee has risen over the years to allow it to broadcast on no fewer than 9 channels (BBC1, 2, 3, 4, News, Parliament, CBBC, CBeebies and HD) plus additional bandwidth for interactive services probably equivalent to about two channels. But instead of providing an equivalent proportion of Welsh language programmes, which would be about 40 hours a week, we only get 12. We are very clearly being short changed.

In other words if the BBC provided S4C with this programming, S4C would need to commission that much less from other sources and would therefore require that much less of a grant from the DCMS to broadcast the same amount of programming as it does now. Or alternatively it could improve the quantity and/or quality of the programmes it currently broadcasts.

So, if the Broadcasting Act is to be repealed to change S4C's funding formula, then the other thing that must change with it is the number of hours of Welsh language programming the BBC provides out of the licence fee. There should be a fixed percentage link.


The second factor to consider is the huge expansion in the number of free-to-air channels available. Although Wales has fewer channels on Freeview than some other parts of the UK, there are still 37 of them (although not all of these are available everywhere, but that is another problem). I counted the total number of hours broadcast on Freeview to Wales today, and it comes to a huge 735 hours.

What happens is that broadcasters bid for licences to broadcast on the available channels, and the terms of those licences set out certain obligations about the sort of programmes that are broadcast. If broadcasting were devolved to Wales, we would be able to set the terms of those licences. The requirements would take a number of forms: for example it could be the amount of educational programmes broadcast, or the amount of local news and current affairs ... or indeed the amount of Welsh language content on these channels.

Now of course the practicalities of broadcasting are such that most broadcasters will find it easier to broadcast the same mix of programming as they broadcast in England. They will simply relay that same content to the Welsh transmitters. So the model we should adopt is to either require them to make their own additional programmes for Wales to be broadcast on a different channel (just as the BBC does for S4C at present) or to provide a sum of money equivalent to the cost of doing it, which would be given to the S4C Authority to enable it to commission those programmes independently. In short, in return for a licence to broadcast on a channel in Wales, the broadcaster must provide either additional programming or money in lieu of it. Remember that we are talking about 600 non-BBC hours of broadcasting a day; 6 hours of additional broadcasting would only add 1% to their costs, twelve hours would add 2%.


The beauty of this sort of arrangement is that it need not be a model only for Welsh language programming. There is no reason why the same model should not be used to provide English language programming specific to Wales as well.


Now of course there are commercial implications to any such arrangement. This isn't a way of getting free programming, because there's no such thing as free programming. However commercial organizations will most definitely pay money for the right to broadcast in Wales, and at present the money paid for these licences goes into the coffers of the Treasury in London. What would change if broadcasting were devolved to Wales is that our share of this money would come to Wales instead. If we decide to impose onerous requirements on the broadcasters, they will bid correspondingly less for the licence. And yes, we may well not get the same number of bids. But is that such a bad thing? If we end up with three or four fewer channels in Wales this will provide the bandwidth necessary for the new channels we want: such as, for example a new English language channel with specifically Welsh-interest programming ... as well as a second Welsh language channel, and probably money for new radio channels.

Of course this will not entirely pay for funding S4C or indeed any of the other things the DCMS funds. But it will go a little way to reduce the burden on taxpayers. As I said in one of the comments in my last post about S4C, we are dealing with the same DCMS that spends £9.3bn in London on the Olympic Games, but claims it is for the benefit of the UK as a whole. But that's a wider issue than broadcasting. The point is that we in Wales will be able to set our own priorities for spending. If Peter Hain and Carwyn Jones kick up such a fuss about cuts to S4C while the DCMS is in the hands of the Tories and LibDems in London, they could hardly be two-faced enough not to agree to fund S4C properly when responsibility for broadcasting is devolved to Wales ... well, not without being seen to be hypocrites!

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Dafydd Tomos said...

BBC Three should be closed down. It's already being hacked to death with yearly budget cuts anyway. If you look at its schedule it only broadcasts an hour of original programming a day. The rest is repeats (from other BBC channels and itself) and American imports.

A slice of its budget could go to BBC Cymru to increase the number of Welsh-language hours provided to S4C. Its Freeview hours in Wales could be used (either by the BBC or a new body) to show English-language programming. BBC Wales does produce a fair bit of decent programming but they're shoved away in late night slots, or worse, popular network shows are moved to accommodate them - pleasing no one.

I'd keep BBC Four (maybe renamed) and make it more like the old less populist BBC Two.

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