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Broadcasting “a remarkable success story for Wales”, but lack of reform risks “digital extinction” for the Welsh culture and language

27 October 2023

While Wales continues to go from strength to strength as a centre for high quality broadcast production and creative talent, the transformational changes in the broadcasting industry risk Welsh content becoming invisible to viewers on digital platforms.

The hit show Welcome to Wrexham streamed on Disney+ demonstrates there are enormous opportunities for Wales to be presented to new audiences. However, the rapid shift away from viewing programmes on traditional linear channels presents profound challenges to the public service broadcasters (PSBs) which have been the bedrock of Welsh broadcasting success.

The warnings come as the Welsh Affairs Committee publishes its report ‘Broadcasting in Wales’, which highlights the importance of levelling the playing field between PSBs and streaming companies, the need to ensure as much Welsh sport is available free-to-air, and to safeguard the Welsh language – across television and radio – into the future.

Programmes made in Wales about Wales, both in English and Welsh language, are vital to modern Welsh identity and the preservation of Welsh culture and language. But a lack of reform by PSBs would lead to a ‘digital extinction’ for the Welsh culture and language. Viewers of on-demand services cannot find content relevant to Wales or Welsh language content through existing filters and search mechanisms. The Committee has called on PSBs to report to the Committee to confirm how they are investing in on-demand and digital services to ensure viewers can watch in the format and language they wish with ease.

Unlike streaming giants, PSBs must operate within national frameworks of legislation and regulation, needing to serve all audiences, offer content free at the point of use, and being obligated to provide programmes for all the UK’s nations and regions. The Government must bring forward the Media Bill, which seeks to make outdated prominence rules fair between PSBs and streaming companies, to Parliament at the earliest opportunity.

S4C is the world’s only Welsh language broadcaster. However, its budget has fallen by 36% since 2010, which it says, has led it to fall behind in its own digital development. The Committee sounds a warning that the scale of investment needed is “daunting” to sustain Welsh language broadcasting in the digital age and advocates an “enhanced long-term partnership” with BBC Cymru Wales. This must protect S4C’s distinct branding and independence, and in its review of the licence fee, the Government is urged to safeguard Welsh-language broadcasting and to be clear about future funding for S4C.

Increasingly, Welsh sports fans are missing out as many events are placed behind the paywall by streaming companies. In 2022, three of the four most-watched programmes in Wales were sports competitions, but the Committee was told that matches hosted by streaming companies are attracting substantially lower audiences. Many sports are conflicted between securing sufficient revenue – the sale of broadcasting and media rights represent around 50% of the income of Wales Rugby Union (WRU) and FA Wales – and maintaining wide access for viewers and continuing the attraction of sports.

The Committee argues that the Listed Sporting Events, being shown free-to-air, should better prioritise Welsh games. It calls on the UK and Welsh Governments, and broadcasters, to discuss how listed events regime could be amended to support a specific list of Welsh events. The Committee calls for the Six Nations rugby tournament and the UK and Republic of Ireland hosted 2028 UEFA European Championships, to both be added to Group A. Ofcom’s remit should be amended to require certain events have Welsh language commentary.

When it comes to radio broadcasting, the Committee heard the sector remains strong, and that radio in Wales is vital to maintaining the Welsh language. However, local stations are being absorbed into larger corporations, and there has been a loss of local identity and coverage, despite stations still carrying the names of the communities they seek to serve. To cater for local communities, a new generation of digital community radio stations have emerged. While some have been offered DAB licences, Wales is trailing the rest of the UK in making the switch to digital radio transmission due to connectivity issues in many areas. The Committee therefore calls on Ofcom to resume offering FM licences.

The Committee is also concerned that current rules on apprenticeships do not reflect Wales’ creative industries sector, and calls for the roll-out of the shared apprenticeship system, allowing apprentices to work for shorter periods of time for multiple employers.

Chair's comment

Welsh Affairs Committee Chair, Rt Hon Stephen Crabb MP, said: 

“Broadcasting in Wales is a remarkable success story, and has played an important role in shaping Welsh national life over the last century and reinforcing modern Welsh identity. We have a thriving ecosystem of creative talent and successful production companies across Wales which supports jobs and adds real economic value. But we are concerned that public service broadcasters are too slow to adapt to the currents of the global broadcasting revolution, and regulation is too weak to ensure a level playing field with the new global streaming giants.

“The UK Government must address this disparity as a matter of urgency and bring forward the long-awaited Media Bill to ensure new prominence rules can protect the PSBs. But the PSBs themselves need to step up and improve the way they present Welsh content on their own digital platforms.

“Sport in Wales faces acute financial challenges, and we recognise the tension that exists between maximising television audiences through free-to-air broadcasting and maximising the revenue available from going behind a paywall. But it is the strong view of the committee that our national teams should be available to watch free-to-air. For Welsh rugby, which is fighting to rediscover its soul and reverse the decline in grassroots participation, this is especially important. The Six Nations competition must remain free-to-air.”

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