By Dr Helen Davies and Dr Christina Papagiannouli

In March 2018 the long awaited independent review of S4C under the chairmanship of Euryn Ogwen Williams was published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Its aim is to assess the current remit, funding arrangement and governance structure of S4C and provide recommendations on how S4C can continue to provide a Welsh-language service that can ‘thrive and flourish in the 21st century’ . Responding to the review’s call for written evidence in advance of publication, the Centre for Media and Culture in Small Nations undertook a comparative study between S4C and other minority-language PSBs in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, focusing on the key themes identified by the review. In response to the review, Dr Helen Davies and Dr Christina Papagiannouli of the Centre for Media and Culture in Small Nations at University of South Wales explore some of the recommendations and main challenges facing minority language PSBs in the digital age.

A legacy of Activism

Founded in 1982, S4C is the only designated Welsh language television channel in the world and the first minority language PSB in Europe. Long before media businesses started to talk about user engagement, campaigners in Wales acted collectively to demand a specific service for Welsh-speaking audiences. S4C is the outcome of a very active audience campaign. Its roots are in this history of activism and a sense of public purpose that is both linguistic and cultural.

Prior to the announcement of this recent review, the last comprehensive review of S4C had been back in 2004 when few of us could imagine how we would live our lives and view content across social media and digital platforms. In 2010, the Coalition Government made huge cuts to S4C’s DCMS grant and thus began a major change in its funding (see Spending Review 2010). By 2013, the BBC licence fee had become the primary source of S4C’s funding. Because broadcasting is not devolved to Wales, all these changes happened without the Welsh Government having any authoritative say in the matter. This helps explain why today the most active group campaigning for S4C in the 1970s and 1980s, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), are calling for the devolution of broadcasting to Wales.

Remit

Despite S4C’s continued commitment to digital innovation, its current remit does not reflect the current media landscape or the expectations of contemporary audiences. Instead, it is rooted in the analogue past. In its 2017 report, S4C: Pushing the Boundaries, S4C explicitly highlights the importance of a new flexible remit for the digital age, allowing S4C to evolve into a public service media (PSM) and provide multi-platform content to its viewers throughout the UK:

The new remit should enable the channel to provide:

(i) high-quality, Welsh language Public Service Media content;

(ii) on television and digital platforms;

(iii) to the audience in Wales, across the UK and beyond.

As long ago as 2002, the European Broadcasting Union’s Digital Strategy Group noted that ‘as a consequence of the new environment, if they take no action, there is a risk that public service broadcasters will find themselves marginalized, or relegated to simply providing television services’ (EBU, 2002). In addition to the need to reflect the current digital landscape, our research highlighted the importance of making the promotion and advocacy of the minority-language and/or culture a statutory requirement of the broadcaster in its remit. While several minority-language broadcasters have specific statutory requirements to promote the language, S4C’s existing remit does not go far enough to promote the Welsh language through its activities both on and offline.

The review’s first recommendation advises government to implement a new public service remit that includes digital and online services, and removes the current geographic broadcasting restrictions. Considering the call from within S4C to update its remit for the digital age, this recommendation is very welcome. However, despite the clear focus placed on the role S4C plays in the promotion of the Welsh language and its relationship with Welsh government, it is perhaps a little unclear how this will be implemented in the updated remit.

Funding

When researching the various funding models implemented by the minority-language PSBs in our study, four key models were identified:

  • Taxation Model – e.g. Yle (Finland)
  • Government and Intermediary Funding Body Model – e.g. Maori TV (NZ) and BBC Alba (Scotland)
  • Government Model – e.g. CCMA, TV3 (Catalonia) and TG4 (Ireland)
  • Licence Fee Model – e.g. RSI (Switzerland)

In the case of S4C, the bulk of its funding comes from the licence fee via the BBC but with modest funding from the DCMS, in addition to a small amount of commercial income. While four main funding models have been identified, there is flexibility in terms of how these models are implemented. Almost all minority-language broadcasters included in our research receive some or all of their funding from government grants, which is unsurprising given the relative scale of their indigenous markets and scope for advertising revenue. According to the EBU (2017:7) this reliance on government funding can mean that PSBs are especially vulnerable to political interference and pressure. Subsequently there has been some mobility between models, with a number of PSBs moving from one model to another. For example, S4C’s funding structure has altered dramatically over the past 5 years, from a direct Government grant linked to the level of UK television advertising income (Government Model) to a Licence Fee Model in 2013.

Despite the relatively recent changes to S4C’s funding model, one of the more disputed recommendations (Recommendation 4) made in the review is the abandonment of the current funding formula. The review calls for all S4C’s public funding to be provided entirely through the licence fee from 2022/23, a proposal resisted by the BBC. In addition to this, the review (Recommendation 5) calls for more freedom to be granted to S4C to develop its commercial income. The argument for this new funding structure is to provide stability protecting S4C’s funding from political interference.

Looking to the future

Although digital was not a priority of the previous remit, S4C’s partnerships with BBC and the indie sector have a long history of digital innovation. In 2012, Y Lifft (produced by Cube for S4C) was the first programme to include a second screen interactive game for children in the UK. In 2016, Sianel Pump was launched, S4C’s first stand-alone YouTube channel targeting a youth/young adult audience. The success of this pilot scheme led to the development of Hansh, a digital channel that produces content for online platforms. With over a million online hits reported in its first two months the success of this channel highlighted the scope digital innovation can have in reaching wider audiences, in and outside Wales. With reference to Recommendation 1, the hope now is that the updated remit will build upon digital innovations of the past and allow for further development in the future.

Our research found that S4C’s ability to develop its commercial income would likely be increased if it had the freedom to develop new revenue sources without requiring explicit consent each time. With reference to Recommendation 5, at a time when many PSBs are moving towards PSMs, alternative funding revenues such as income raised through digital partnerships could offer new commercial as well as creative opportunities.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Media Policy Project or the LSE.