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    08 February, 2005

    ITV - another Welsh victory?

    It's too early to call it a victory yet, but OFCOM's proposals for ITV in the Nations and Regions have clearly been influenced by the public and political pressure from Wales. The campaign has been led by the unions through their excellent campaign, Save Welsh TV , supported by all political parties in the National Assembly , the Welsh Assembly Government, and by Welsh MPs, including the Secretary of State.

    We need to read the detail carefully. But the good news is that there will be protection for ITV Wales news and current affairs. There will be a fund for out-of-London production; there will be specific licences for the nations recognising they have greater needs than the English regions; ITV will have to produce 'high-value' programmes for the nations and regions; there will be a larger quota of programmes to be made for ITV from outside London; and unlike the English regions, non-news Welsh output will have to be at least four hours per week before digital switchover and will stay at three hours per week after switchover.

    We need to understand how this last point compares to current production from ITV Wales. Also, there is a difference of phrasing in the Welsh and the Scottish non-news obligations, which suggests that ITV Wales could meet part of its obligation by producing programmes in the Welsh language.This must not be used by ITV Wales to renege from its commitments to make programmes through the medium of English.

    OFCOM also keeps alive the possibility of separate Public Service Publishers, rather than a single Public Service Publisher (PSP). I was the first to argue, in October, for a Public Service Publisher for Wales if we failed to get ITV's hours protected. (see below). OFCom's proposals suggest the possibility of a local television model for a PSP.

    On S4C, OFCOM has moved the debate on its future further forward, 'greater transparency in the relationship between the BBC and S4C.' In the longer term, OFCOM suggests 'a competitive tender model for the provision of Welsh language services.' This seems to mean the option of merger between S4C and the BBC, for which I have argued in the past, is off the agenda. Fair enough. But we must avoid the debate now simply becoming a defence of the status quo.

    The second phase of OFCOM’s Public Service Broadcasting Review has provoked a much-needed debate on the way forward for broadcasting in Wales after digital switch-over, likely to happen some time between 2010 and 2012.

    In the short-term, OFCOM has thrown in the towel and plans to grant ITV a relaxation of its commitments to broadcast non-news programmes in England - and probably in Wales, though this remains open to debate and input from OFCOM’s National Advisory Committees. It will mean fewer hours of dedicated Welsh programming in due course.

    OFCOM’s analysis is based on the assumption that at some point on the road to the switch-off of the analogue signal, it will make no financial sense for ITV to hold on to its public service licences. According to media analyst Mathew Horsman, ITV could save £400 million per annum by giving up its licences. Instead, they will take their ball away and play simply a commercial game on satellite, cable or Freeview. With Wales having a higher than average take-up of digital, it makes even less economic sense for them to stay here. That’s why OFCOM wants to reduce the hours of English regional and Welsh non-news public service broadcasting, in order to ensure ITV stays with its analogue licences longer.

    Despite profits ahead of City expectations, ITV has been lobbying over the summer for a reduction in the amounts it pays the Treasury, saying that it cannot afford both to pay the sums it signed up to and to finance its public service programming commitments. Now OFCOM proposes to lessen the burden, but you can bet that ITV won’t give up trying to get its costs down. HTV’s licence fees were cut in 1998 from £26 million to £9 million – yes, a £17 million reduction – but now ITV wants the remaining £9 million to be cut as well. The truth is that the ITV companies have been lobbying for more liberalisation and cuts in their licence fees since before the ink was dry on the new franchise contracts in 1992. There have been significant cuts in output on ITV Wales – and all ITV ‘Regions’ - since 2001.

    OFCOM’s capitulation to ITV should be opposed. ITV’s threat is something of a bluff – its public service frequencies have some useful benefits attached, like regional advertising monopolies and ‘must carry’ status where they are simulcast on digital systems, as well as due prominence on the electronic programme guides which help viewers navigate their way around digital TV systems. OFCOM should be negotiating with ITV from a position of strength, not weakness. We need to defend ITV Wales for as long as we can.

    But the issues OFCOM raises for the long-term cannot be ducked. It is quite possible that after digital switchover, ITV will elect to become a UK national channel only, and drop its public service broadcasting obligations – and nobody will be able to stop it legally or technologically. When that happens, OFCOM says a new public service broadcaster should be created: a Public Service Publisher, recognising that the new operator will be producing digital content that may be accessed in other ways than simple linear channels, for example, through video-on-demand over broadband or on mobiles.

    The Public Service Publisher (PSP) idea has been attacked in some quarters largely because of the funding systems proposed. OFCOM suggests the PSP should have a £300 million budget, and be funded either by ‘an enhanced licence fee’ with the BBC’s income rising on a par with what it is now but the new PSP getting the balance; taxation, either general taxation or by a tax on use from the auction of the analogue spectrum, or by a levy on the turnover of other broadcasters. The danger is that for any Government, taking a cut of the licence fee – but not enhancing it significantly – looks like the easiest option.

    But what happens if there is no PSP? In Wales, we would be left with two media monopolists dominating the production of Welsh-based news: the Trinity Mirror newspaper group and the BBC. (The BBC produces all of S4C’s news and a heavy chunk of its current affairs). It is highly unlikely that ITV Wales will survive digital switchover. Though OFCOM’s focus in its latest report is on non-news programming, there is no guarantee that after digital switchover ITV will provide dedicated Welsh news programming either: OFCOM only says that ITV might ‘possibly’ provide news services in its ‘regions’ but this is dependent on ‘the financial position after switchover’. With Welsh respondents confirming to OFCOM that TV provides most of their news about Wales, we definitely need a competitor to the BBC: not because the BBC is bad, mad or biased, but because in news provision we need plurality.

    What should we do in Wales? I believe the first thing we should do is demand a separate PSP for Wales. If funded on the basis of a 6.5% share of £300 million, that would be a public service broadcaster for Wales with a budget of £19.5 million per annum. On OFCOM’s figures that would be nearly double what ITV spent on programmes for Wales in 2003. There should be a competition to run the new Wales PSP, with all bidders allowed except the BBC, S4C, and Trinity Mirror, in order to create plurality in news production. I would hope personally that an independent producer might be able to bid for it, or better still a consortium of independent producers, able to utilise programmes from their back catalogue, and hopefully also run it as a near ‘open-access’ channel. It wouldn’t necessarily need to start with a full schedule, building on the experience of S4C and BBC Choice Wales when they started. The PSP for Wales would be an English language service, given that the public money devoted to Welsh language programming and services between S4C and BBC Cymru Wales amounts to some £100 million or so, well in excess of English language programmes made for Wales.

    This doesn’t mean that the company holding the PSP licence couldn’t also bid to make programmes in Welsh to obtain additional revenue. ITV Wales currently gets between £4 and £7 million of contracts per annum from S4C, according to ITV’s evidence before the Assembly’s Culture Committee in September. Additionally, we should be demanding that if ITV renounces the digital Channel 3 licences, then the PSP for Wales should get them gratis, with the benefits that they entail, including ‘must carry’ status, due prominence, gifted capacity on digital multiplexes and any waiver from spectrum pricing.

    This proposal could address the question that has been raised over the last fifteen years, of the need for an English language channel for Wales. I have always been sceptical of that idea myself. In the past I feared that it would simply become a means of undermining HTV’s audience. More recently it also looked unambitious, given the opportunities offered by digital and broadband, with the potential for an online Welsh creative library of programme content. However, with the possibility existing now that ITV Wales might only have a short-term future, the debate on an English language Welsh channel should re-surface.

    Some will argue that channels have only a limited future in the digital world, and that in due course we will simply be downloading programmes from digital archives. While it is certainly true that multichannel viewers, and particularly younger people, are starting to view TV in a different way, channels are still seen by many as ‘trusted guides’. We know though that homes with ‘personal video recorders’ (PVRs) which record favourite TV series onto hard disks are changing viewing patterns, so that their viewers less and less watch TV programmes in real time. With PVRs set to get larger hard drives in future, this tendency will grow.

    That means that we also need in Wales a digital content production strategy - Welsh content produced for the download era. This could be from the broadcasters’ archives (the BBC is promising BBC on Demand (‘BBC yn ol y galw’) as part of its Charter Review manifesto.) But digital content could include films, WNO operas and BBC National Orchestra of Wales concerts, rock music videos, sports events, community-made programmes and so on.

    We can be certain that the BBC is likely to remain at the centre of broadcasting in Wales. The central role of the BBC in creating what we mean by ‘Wales’ is well understood. But OFCOM is also promising a review of Welsh language broadcasting. It is important that this review is seen as an opportunity to consider how best to maximise the resources for talent and programme-making in the Welsh language, not simply sticking with the status quo. BSkyB recently broadcast Welsh language commentaries on the Welsh soccer internationals. In the past BBC Wales Cymru has offered Radio Cymru commentaries to its digital television viewers. One has to wonder whether after digital switchover there should ever be any auction for Welsh sports rights which involves our two public broadcasters, BBC Wales Cymru and S4C bidding against each other.

    BBC Wales Cymru has produced the daily Welsh language internet news service Cymru’r Byd as well as Radio Cymru, and has worked with the papurau bro as well. It is right that OFCOM should look at Welsh language programming in the round. This could be an opportunity to free additional resources for Welsh language programming. As Geraint Talfan Davies has pointed out in the past, the fact that we have two languages has ensured that over the years we have accrued additional resources for programme-making in Wales overall.

    We have to turn the current pessimistic scenario into a new opportunity. We need a campaign in Wales to protect ITV Wales’ programming in the short-term. But for the longer-term, we should argue the case for a new Welsh Public Service Publisher, able to compete with the BBC in the making of news and current affairs programmes in particular, and providing a new space for Welsh content from different sources.

    Leighton Andrews is AM for the Rhondda and Honorary Professor at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University

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