Hungry Wales in an Age of TV Plenty

If a thing is repeated often enough it begins to be as persuasive as though it were true.

We’ve never had it so good, apparently. We live in a televisual Age of Plenty with digital wares piled high in the marketplace and so it’s time for the BBC to withdraw from universality and to stop disadvantaging the commercial sector by its scale and success; the level of public funding gives the BBC an unfair advantage over its competitors and the BBC should become more ‘distinctive’, confining itself to things the market can’t or won’t provide.

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This is the gist of one point of view in the Charter Renewal debate, characterised in the Green Paper thus:

The BBC can have both a positive and a negative impact on the activities of its competitors. It has arguably helped the development of the sector by encouraging high standards and through investment in independent production and the infrastructure of media distribution. However, others make the case that the level of public funding gives the BBC an unfair advantage and distorts audience share in a way that undermines commercial business models.

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Questions also persist around the distinctiveness of the programmes the BBC delivers, and whether it uses its broad purposes to act in too commercial a way, chasing ratings rather than delivering distinctive, quality programming that other providers would not.

But how apt is this metaphor of abundance in the case of Wales? Are Welsh viewers so plentifully supplied that they should support a more ‘niche’ BBC?

In Cardiff in April 2014 Director General, Tony Hall acknowledged that the English language tv service for Wales had been ‘eroded’ over the last ten years and he specifically mentioned comedy, entertainment and culture. Given that the BBC Audience Council Wales Annual Review 2014 – 15 last week used the term ‘cliff-edge’ to describe the position of the tv service to Wales I think I’m getting the picture: imminent collapse, disappearance. Not a niche, not a hand-hold left. An Age of Erosion?

‘erosion’. What does that mean? What are we gradually losing?

‘culture’. That’s a dense term, a very dense term. To unpack it a little, I’ve made a back-of –the-envelope list of what might come under that term because, presumably, that’s what the Director General believes has already slipped away. What is seldom or never seen on tv in Wales in the English Language?

Culture

That would be Theatre, Visual Arts, Crafts, Design, Fashion, Digital Arts, Dance, Fine Art, Literature, Music…

Science

That would be Life Sciences, Physics, Electronics, Mathematics, Geology, Architectural Science, Astronomy… Apart from Environmental Science, it’s very hard to think of any English language BBC Wales tv programme in the last twenty-five years about science in Wales. Engineering scrapes in via a very recent Carol Vorderman documentary about aviation engineering.

Agriculture

Religion

Business and Commerce

Plus the genres of Drama, Entertainment and Comedy which could, arguably, treat any of these subjects.

Increasingly, Current Affairs is the only genre in which many of these subjects are dealt with on BBC Wales. No matter how well that genre handles them it will always be from the angle appropriate to Current Affairs. Seldom will they be presented in their own terms.

Via documentary provision some of these topics will be represented to one degree or another but nonetheless there is a general under-representation of important areas of Welsh life across a range of televisual genres.

Far from doing everything, it would seem that the BBC in Wales is not doing enough. A crucial question to ask in the Charter Renewal debate is,  What’s in it for Wales?

And, secondly, how well will the market serve Wales if BBC Wales withdraws into a niche?

Ofcom’s recent report Public Service Broadcasting in the internet age notes that

Channel 3 licensees in Northern Ireland, Wales and the English regions have all reduced their hours of non-network programming, while STV in Scotland has almost doubled its hours over the period. Except in Scotland, the BBC has been the largest provider of all types of programming, while since 2009, ITV (in the English regions and Wales) and UTV have primarily provided news and current affairs…

The decline over the period reflects in large part the reduction in the Channel 3 licence obligations in 2008, and a continuing decline in hours from UTV and ITV Wales.

ITV Wales makes ninety minutes per week of ‘popular’ (a noteworthy epithet) non-news programming and meets its licence requirements. It is a crucial other voice in the Welsh broadcasting arena but if the BBC is cut back in Wales will it step up to fill the gaps? Does it work like that?

Interestingly the Ofcom report notes that,

Scotland bucks this (downward) trend because of the efforts of STV, which has consistently delivered above its licence commitments, and above the level of BBC provision, particularly in relation to programming other than news and current affairs. It is worth noting that this is largely, though not exclusively, through one programme, The Nightshift, a live overnight compilation of news items and archive footage with an interactive element.’

You’d almost think something important had happened in Scotland recently.

The surface of the Charter Renewal debate will ripple with the terms universality, expensive entertainment and “distinctive” programming and it will be hard to get to the depths beneath. Peter Preston points to issues which should not be submerged:

The news channel was earmarked for digital oblivion many years ago. Sport is either off the park or restored by some kind of subscription initiative. A World Service that Britain doesn’t get to hear much is a victim awaiting eventual dismemberment. Why give parliament a TV channel when digital does it better? Is Radio 1 there for the listener or for the music industry’s moguls? Who needs public-service apps at the cutting edge of smartphone newsflashes (at least for the immediate future)? Is asking young iPlayer users to pay the full fee or push off a brilliant idea?

There are good questions for the BBC to ask itself. There is a good, positive discussion to be had.

These questions matter to viewers in Wales as much as to anyone in the UK. But there are issues which are specifically of importance and the most fundamental is one of the most basic – representation.

Too much of Welsh life is kept below the surface. In an Age of TV Plenty we in Wales don’t have Enough.

 

 

 

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