Sophie's /Choice

Well done Rhodri Glyn Thomas for presenting the clearest picture of what is going on between S4/C and the DCMS:

Former Heritage Minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas said: “I believe Jeremy Hunt is being clever. By telling S4C to come up with cuts of their own, he is hoping to bypass any legal challenge that could be made to a cut imposed by himself.

“Because of recent events including the poor way in which the departure of former chief executive Iona Jones was handled, those running S4C have put themselves into a weak position.

“In these circumstances it is the responsibility of the Assembly Government to step in and tell Jeremy Hunt firmly that he should not be forcing S4C to cut its own budget in a way that would put it at a disadvantage to the BBC, whose budget is protected for the next two years. If he refuses to listen, the Assembly Government should threaten to challenge his actions in court.”

Western Mail, 11 September 2010

I'd imagine Jeremy Hunt said something like this:

“If you come up with a plan under which you can cut your budget by 15% over four years, then I'll only cut your budget by that amount. But if you refuse to come up with a plan, I'll cut your budget by 30% over four years. Choose.”

As Rhodri Glyn points out, the advantage to Mr Hunt is that if S4/C comply, he manages to get that part of DCMS spending down without the Con-Dem coalition needing to amend the Broadcasting Act that sets out its funding formula. If he ignores the Act and simply imposed a cut, this would be challenged in court and the DCMS would be certain to lose. That's why it's so important for him to get S4/C to “agree” to a cut.

For Jeremy Hunt, it's Hobson's Choice. He will be under orders to cut the DCMS's overall spending budget by a certain percentage come what may ... though I suspect he's an entirely willing participant.

But for S4/C, it's Sophie's Choice. If the film isn't already ingrained in your memory, this is the critical scene:


Sophie Zawistowski, after telling her story a few years later, killed herself and her son. She couldn't live with the guilt of having made that choice, or the horror of knowing that she was capable of making it. I'd hope that S4/C is made of sterner stuff.

S4/C should not let themselves be pressured into thinking they have to make this choice. It's our channel, it belongs to us in Wales. Make it clear what pressures you are being placed under. Explain the situation so we can debate the issues openly. We might not like all the details of the way S4/C is run, but plenty of us will stand beside you to make sure S4/C is not unfairly singled out.

Alun Davies put it this way, and I agree with him entirely:

“S4C is not a public body but a public broadcaster. It is wholly unacceptable for a debate over its future and its funding to be conducted in secret.

“I believe that we have the right to understand what discussions are taking place within the DCMS and we expect the DCMS to make statements to Parliament and to discuss these matters with the National Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government before any public consultation takes place on any potential changes to the status or funding of S4C.”

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Simon Brooks said...

The S4C situation is very dangerous. I'm normally very reticent about civil disobedience, and in most of the language protests I've been involved in, I've argued against using the tactic.

However, with the S4C situation, I think we have little choice. I entirely support Cymdeithas yr Iaith's line on this issue. Not paying the licence fee is probably a good way to start.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the threat isn't quite as Rhodri Glyn suggests. It's probably a lot more brutal.

Something along these lines perhaps;

"Given your total failure of governance and the way management have lost the confidence of both their suppliers and viewers if you force us to legislate to cut your funding we will do a lot more than that."

Supporters of Welsh language TV should be very careful here. Support for S4C should not mean unconditional support for the Authority or the current management.

Anonymous said...

Cuts are unavoidable, sadly. S4C will have to take a hit from the Con-Dem swinging axe (and the BBC should too IMO) as long as the cuts are proportionate and fair. It seems as though that isn't going to be the case.

There are core underlying problems at S4C that should've been addressed years ago. The channel doesn't reflect 21st-century Wales in it's programming.

There is a core, rural, traditional Welsh-speaking audience that has to be catered for of course. I don't speak much Welsh, but I don't want to see the language become some sort of quaint pastiche, dragged out to impress tourists or become the reserve of the old and the middle class. S4C has to be a dynamic, modern channel for a functioning, modern language.

"Cyw" is an excellent example of what S4C should be about and what direction it should take.

Perhaps S4C shouldn't even be a channel in the traditional sense, but an umbrella for a multitude of Welsh-language (perhaps even English-language as well) media brands. Sort of channels within a channel, each one specialising in a different niche. An arts brand, a documentary and history brand, a sports brand, a news & current affairs brand, a general entertainment/lifestyle brand, an education/Welsh-learners brand etc.

Anonymous said...

im afraid correspondents like simon brooks and yourself MH appear to be missing the central issue in this debate - the reason the likes of jeremy hunt are taking the the hard line they are over s4c are the pathetic viewing figures for the channel. Discussions on the crisis currently facing s4c should be directed into getting more people in wales to actually watch the channel.

While misguided suggestions that breaking the law will somehow help s4c are frankly risible - who would participate in such a campaign? the tiny numbers who currently actually watch the channel? the handful of members of fringe organisatins like cymuned and Cymdeithas yr Iaith?

anyone who imagines that s4c can carry on in its current dire state unchanged and untouched in the midst of the biggest public spending review since the mid 1870s is frankly living in cloud cuckooland - such people do nothing to safeguard the longterm future of the channel.

Leigh Richards

Anonymous said...
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MH said...

I think debate and protest before civil disobedience, Simon. But in the end, we must do whatever it takes.


Anon 18:17, I'm not convinced by your ideas of total failure of governance and loss of confidence. But even if it were half that bad, the solution to better programming lies with management, commissioning and creativity. It certainly won't be solved by threatening the existence of the channel ... though I suspect that's why you're over-painting your picture.


Anon 19:48, I would simply say that S4C deserves at least equal treatment with the BBC. Yes, if the Con-Dem government is going to cut back the BBC by reducing the licence fee by 25%, by all means do the same to S4C's funding ... but at the same time. But I don't think they will do that. They will either freeze the licence fee, or allow a below inflation increase.

But I fully agree that we should not see S4C as merely one TV channel. I have argued before [here]for something fairly similar to what you suggest in your last paragraph. In just the same way as C4 RUK is a family of channels (C4, E4, More4, Film4) S4C as an organization should comprise: a fully Welsh channel; a channel broadcasting English-language programmes specific to Wales (properly doing what BBC2W has now stopped doing); and Children's/Young Persons'/Learners' channel. I had originally thought it should have a Senedd/News/Current Affairs channel too, but maybe the BBC's Democratiaeth Fyw can fulfil that function. We should certainly not underestimate different platforms like streaming and On Demand programming, but these can't be a substitute because our broadband infrastructure isn't up to the job.

Just on the subject of the arts alone, why are we not seeing foreign language films with a choice of subtitles in Welsh and English on text? Or opera? I want to see Manon Lescaut with subtitles in Welsh rather than English (and so of course does Manon ;-) The video I've just shown could just as easily be subtitled in Welsh at very little cost. So could the real version of Wallander. This sort of venture would give S4C the same sort of appeal to non-Welsh speakers who are interested in the arts as sport has now, and would have a cross-border appeal to the whole of the UK.

And the BBC must play a fuller part than they do now. Their obligation to contribute a certain number of hours hasn't changed much from the days when the BBC had far fewer channels and broadcast far fewer hours per week. At the very least, its Welsh language output should be re-linked as a proportion of its current TV output on what is now eight channels, plus its interactive slots. Welsh language programming is no longer getting a fair share of the licence fee.

MH said...

Leigh, I honestly don't think Jeremy Hunt has given any thought to either the programme content or viewing figures for S4C. If those things are mentioned they will just be pretexts, excuses for trying to justify the cuts he would still want to make even if S4C had three times the viewers it has now. To him, it is just £100m out of an annual departmental budget of £2.2bn, shared among a few hundred other worthy or not so worthy causes.

The name of the game is to make S4C too much hassle and too much of a headache for him to cut, so that he goes for other, easier pickings. As I said to Simon, it's not time for civil disobedience yet, but it is time for debate and protest. Quite frankly it will do us all some good to have something worth getting together to fight for.

We also have some very strong cards to play. Look at how little Wales has benefited form the extortionate costs of the Olympics in London, for example, despite assurances that it would benefit the whole of the UK. It's the same DCMS, so let's make sure we get some redress. 21% (Welsh speakers) of 5% (Wales) of £9.3bn is touch under £100m. More, since the numbers are bound to have risen since 2001. But that alone would fund what would otherwise be five or six years of the rumoured cuts.


Anon 22:21. Be more careful of your language when you repost your comment.

Anonymous said...

Just out of interest does anyone know how big a sample of Welsh viewers they have to come up with the S4C viewing figures? S4C is always getting bashed for having zero viewers for some programmes but is that because the sample is so small as to be meaningless?

Anonymous said...

Anon 19.48 (please give some kind of name!). I'd agree with this and add radio too.

Perhaps S4C shouldn't even be a channel in the traditional sense, but an umbrella for a multitude of Welsh-language (perhaps even English-language as well) media brands. Sort of channels within a channel, each one specialising in a different niche. An arts brand, a documentary and history brand, a sports brand, a news & current affairs brand, a general entertainment/lifestyle brand, an education/Welsh-learners brand etc.'

There's is an underlying story to audience figures and that is that the number of Welsh-speaking households is falling; the increase in Welsh-speaker marrying non-Welsh speakers; Welsh-speakers not passing the language on to their kids etc. These are underlying symptoms which do not effect English-language channels and which are beyond the ability of S4C to change on itself. They're also ultimately the structural problem of being a part of the British state and the policies and structures which we've inherited over generations of being a part of that state.

The 'core' audience is dying as with the communities of that core audience - this was the whole thrust of the Simon Glyn affair. One small way this impacts on S4C is that many people watch programmes which their workmates and neighbours talk about, if your community is becoming anglicised then an important part of passing information is lost.

So now we have a political philosophy (Britishness) which was antagonistic to keeping Welsh as a community language and now saying, 'cos Welsh isn't a community language and the inherent strength that gives a language community we're now going to cut your budget'.

However, there's a lot S4C can do (and I believe do try and achieve, someone spoke of Cyw etc.) to recognise the changing demographics (or language death if you wish). It's time S4C became more ambitious - and anon's suggestions would be on the right track for me. I'd also look to cut the wages of the staff or freeze them. It's possible to do a lot of things on a tighter budget.

There are going to be cuts to S4C and I think S4C and we have to accept some of that (if it also applies to other media). I think S4C would lose political support if it said 'no cuts'. However, there are dozens of English-language channels and there's only one Welsh one. If S4C's budget is cut very drastically as to jeopardise the output of the only Welsh language channel then I think and hope politicians and Welsh society would show their side.


Owen (Anon 19:48) said...


I can see why you started this blog now. Having lurked on the Walesonline forums for a while, your post must've seemed wasted on there. :)


I've always felt the language and our culture has been used against us, either as a carrot (Tories creating S4C) or a stick (ramblings about the "cost of Welsh"). We've allowed it because the price for failure (to protect it) is so high. Even monoglot English/pidgin-Welsh speakers like myself realise that.

I'd like to expand my ideas for S4C if I may.

BBC Wales and S4C should merge, certainly as the result of broadcasting being devolved. The new corporation would have a new identity, though I can't think of any names.

The new channels should be (with the exception of childrens programmes) bilingual, with instant subtitles, dubbing or commentary in Welsh, English, or a Welsh learners service that highlights key words and phrases.

Seeing as we are now in the digital/freeview age, there's no real need for a single channel. I would like the new broadcaster to take full advantage of this. Instead of the traditional BBC1, BBC2, S4C etc, there would be a selection of the following in a cross between red-button and iplayer:

"CBBC Wales" - English language childrens/teens programming (including schools programmes where appropriate).
"Cyw" - Welsh language childrens/teens programming.
"Gynfas" - Dedicated to arts, music, films and avante-garde programmes and events from Wales and around the World.
"Ein Byd" - Dedicated to documentaries about history, culture & society from around the world but with an emphasis on Wales.
"Sgorio" - Sports, including all live (bilingual) coverage of sports with rights held by either BBC Wales or S4C. Coverage of as much domestic sport as possible alongside niche interest sport (where rights allow).
"Ymlacio" - General entertainment, comedy and lifestyle programmes, including the big BBC English language shows (Eastenders followed by Pobol y Cwm for example).
"Cymru 24" - News, politics, current affairs from Wales, UK, Europe and World. Special focus of Welsh affairs though.
"Prentis" - More interactive than a channel, specialist programming, activities etc. for aimed at adult Welsh learners or those taking courses in Welsh as a second language.

Each "channel" would have a dedicated website (and brand) with the ability to catch up on programming, perhaps with extra options regarding subtitles etc.

Cibwr said...

I would love to know the logic behind cutting the BBC's money? S4C is in a difficult position because its not funded by hypothicated taxation, like the BBC but by direct government grant subsidised by advertising revenue. But please explan anon why the BBC should cut its expenditure?

Owen (Anon 19:48) said...

Cibwr, that's a good point and something I've overlooked and I apologise. Obviously the BBC isn't under the same kind of scruitiny as S4C is, clearly I was wrong.

However does it not set a dangerous precident that one public service broadcaster is being singled out above others? Jeremy Hunt will get a pat on the head from George Osbourne for finding an extra/"easy" £20m or so in cuts. Wales is left with the same old crap. Hence the need to completely reform S4C regardless.

Carl Morris said...

Anonymous 00:54
I wrote a post examing the S4C viewing figures earlier this year. Let's just say it's quite frustrating to see newspapers unquestioningly quoting the "zero viewers" as fact.

Dafydd Tomos said...

Owen's ideas appears to have no knowledge of how broadcasting works. You can't magic new channels out of thin air. There is very limited space on Freeview and each channel costs a lot of money to transmit. S4C is currently squeezed into a PSB mux (ensuring it is available on the majority of transmitters), and there is no more space. There is barely enough bandwidth to transmit a decent quality picture on S4C as it is.

Your ideas for special 'channels within channels' is essentially what S4C has been doing, with the limitation of only having space/money for a single Freeview/Sky channel.

Neither is creating web-only content a wise idea (dramatically reducing the potential audience). It's great to use the web for additional content or for cheap experimentation but all that costs extra money and the problem at the moment is budget cuts.

Rather than merging broadcasters, S4C desperately needs competition (maybe not on national broadcast TV as it's too expensive). When the BBC had a monopoly on TV broadcasting (up until 1955) it was widely regarded as elitist and out-of-touch - well-made programmes but old-fashioned. That's the danger for S4C too. After ITV came along, both channels were forced to compete for the audience and the 1960s saw a lot of innovation and new ideas in television.

When S4C was analogue, its problem was having to serve two functions - show Welsh language programming and rebroadcast Channel 4 content. In its digital form, it doesn't need to show C4 programmes, so has the burden of filling more hours with the same amount of money and higher costs. They dealt with that by squeezing and consolidating the production sector, but that leads to less competition between producers and less diversity.

I know the argument against the above - "the Welsh language audience is to small to split.. it would duplicate resources etc". But if we can't depend on an enlightened S4C board that know exactly how to produce popular, interesting and diverse programming, then there has to be a way of promoting that from an external body, without resorting to threats of budget cuts which will make their job even harder.

MH said...

Yes Owen, WalesOnline did rather let their standards slip. But they've ended up with the sort of forum I think they wanted to see. I still check it out, it is hilarious.

I wouldn't disagree with your list of channels, except to say that it is a lot to expect. Right now, just one or two additional channels would be quite an achievement. One of S4C's problems has been to fill the available time with high-quality programming. Cyw is very good. I've watched Stwnsh once or twice, and it seems OK. The idea of "branding" is good (like T4 on Channel 4 and C2 on Radio Cymru) as it provides a sort of half-way-house to being a channel in its own right.

As for merging S4C and BBC Wales, I think that's tricky. I think the BBC would be happy to swallow S4C (in Scotland, the Gaelic-medium channel is run by the BBC) but not the other way round. Diversity is important, and I would be unhappy to lose it.

The issue of funding is tricky. I have mixed feelings about the Licence Fee; on one hand it is inherently unfair for a large rich family with live-in au-pair, cook and gardener to pay the same as a poor single person in a one room flat. But on the other hand, it protects the BBC from changes in funding at the whim of government. Right now, the good probably outweighs the bad ... but the new government is clearly has the BBC in its sights.

I certainly would not want responsibility for funding S4C to be devolved unless broadcasting as a whole was devolved to Wales. If only the first happened, we would end up in the same situation as we are in with Network Rail, who do not operate a formula that gives Wales a proportionate share of funding, meaning that we have to pay (or part pay) for rail improvements from our block grant. But what form would devolved broadcasting take? Would it necessitate the break up of the BBC? Perhaps it could, with the BBC becoming a federation of individual corporations for Wales, England, Scotland and NI rather than a central corporation with departments as at present. The BBC is much more aware of its responsibilities to the nations and regions than it was before, but in practice still has a long way to go to properly discharge those responsibilities. It probably is moving in the right direction, but I'm sure it would regard federalization as a step too far.

With regard to Channel 3, we could demand a separate licence for Wales with terms that would be more demanding than at present, but I wonder if a better model might be to say that ITV is free to provide only the network service for the whole of the UK on channel three, with no regional slots or variations, but would still be required to produce Welsh programming that would instead be shown on the new English-language channel for Wales. The point at issue would be that Wales could set the terms of the licence to provide the number of hours and type of programming we think appropriate, but accept that we would get lower bids if the terms were more demanding. In practice, because ITV will probably still have responsibility to provide a few hours of English regional programmes, it would mean there was a still a Welsh news programme on ITV (say half an hour a day) but that another, say, 15 hours was broadcast on the new English-medium channel in the same way as the BBC currently provides Welsh-language programmes for S4C.

MH said...

Carl, I agree about the inadequacy of the BARB way of measuring, although I do think that BARB has proportionately more boxes in Wales than elsewhere in the UK, perhaps in an attempt to address this.

It is a great shame that BARB's data isn't freely available any more. It was a few years ago, but C4 and S4C were always lumped together. In 2008, S4C did say their average viewing time per week was 24min. When I looked at the comparable figures later that year, it compared very favourably with these:

Sky 1 ... 13 min/wk
BBC3 ... 17 min/wk
BBC4 ... 7 min/wk
BBC News ... 13 min/wk
E4 ... 18 min/week
Film 4 ... 13 min/wk
More 4 ... 14 min/wk


Dafydd, I don't doubt what you say about capacity, but that's not really the point. The point is to prioritize the channels on the bandwidth available in Wales. I think there are now about 30 available on Freeview, and I believe we should get rid of some (Dave ja vu or E4+1, for example) to provide more room for other channels.

With regard to your last paragraph, I think you've very neatly shown why it was so important for the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority to keep its separation from S4C as a channel. The worst aspect of the current situation is that the WFCA have ridden roughshod over that distinction.

Dafydd Tomos said...

Just a technical point about 'channels'. There are only 3 'public service' multiplexes. PSB1 is used in its entirety by the BBC. PSB2 is used by all other designated PSB broadcasters and provides a barely adequate picture on most channels, including S4C. PSB3 is used by HD channels and requires new equipment to view.

The 3 remaining multiplexes are commercial entities, although S4C2 is on a commercial mux, but only broadcasts a few weeks a year (Eisteddfod etc). These commercial muxes don't have universal coverage (i.e. they're not available on many relay transmitters). If there was space available on these muxes, they would be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

You are right that in a world of PVRs, it is pointless having +1 channels on Freeview (particularly on PSB muxes), and I would like to see C4+1, ITV2+1 removed in Wales to actually give S4C some bandwidth!

Even if S4C or some other new 'Welsh broadcaster' were 'gifted' additional space on PSB2, any new channel would still cost a million or two for transmission, taking money away from programme-making.

Simon Brooks said...


Sorry, I've not had a chance to go on the web for a while. The reason why I think civil disobedience would be justified in the particular case of S4C is that what is proposed clearly discriminates on the basis of language, and nothing much else.

The BBC has announced that it will freeze its income from the licence fee for the next two years. S4C on the other hand is expected to take a 25%-40% hit over the next four. What other rational is there for this act of language-based discrimination in public broadcasting policy than the anti-Welsh line that "nobody" watches S4C "anyway".

If S4C's budget is to be cut by 25-40% I would expect the BBC's budget to go down by a similar amount. And if this does not happen, why then should we pay the licence fee?

At some point, at some place, language campaigners have to take a stand on the issue of public sector cuts that hit Welsh-language services more than English-language services. We cannot pussyfoot around for ever.

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