Welsh 4th Channel: Heart Of New Pulse

At the heart of the media resurgence in Wales lies S4C, the Welsh-language fourth channel.

Although Welsh-lingo programming pre-dates S4C, it was scattered at different times of the day on HTV and BBC Wales, thus annoying both Welsh and English-speakers.

On a per capita basis, S4C is one of the most heavily subsidized broadcasters in Europe. It receives about £ 50 million ($96 million) from a compulsory levy on ITV stations (in a quid pro quo, ITV franchise holder HTV gets to sell S4C airtime), and 10 hours a week of gratis programming from BBC Wales (paid out of the annual tax on tv sets) worth about £ 20 million per year.

Its potential audience consists of an estimated 500,000 Welsh-language speakers out of a population of 2.8 million.

Nevertheless, the trickle-down benefits of S4C have been significant. They include the creation of an internationally respected animation industry, a lively indie tv production sector and a solid network of facility companies.

Speaking in tongues

S4C’s unique position in British broadcasting – it’s the U.K.’s only multilingual service – has been preserved by the government. The web’s income after 1993 has been fixed at 3.2% of all national terrestrial advertising revenue (down from the current fixed level of 3.4%), and it will continue to receive the 10 hours of free programming from BBC Wales. S4C will be charged with selling its own ad airtime, replacing HTV.

“We are not unhappy with the situation. It’s a formula we can live with,” says Geraint Stanley Jones, chief exec of S4C, who estimates S4C will have to generate another £ 5 million a year to make up the shortfall.

He acknowledges that S4C, in line with other British broadcasters, will have to learn to “change from an essentially public service organization to one that has a more commercial attitude.”

The exec says his main priority will be to increase viewership of the channel as way of attracting more advertisers. One route to a wider audience (a top-rated show on S4C draws about 130,000 viewers) is to tap the English-speaking population of Wales. Stanley Jones said S4C is planning to subtitle 75% of its output on teletext by 1993. (Direct subtitling is a no-no because the bilingual Welsh say they are always looking to see if the English translation checks out with the Welsh original.)

He has also set a target of raising £ 3 million a year from ad airtime sales, a 50% increase on the amount HTV is estimated to sell for S4C.

The topper is looking to draw another £ 1 million from sponsorship, much of it for the teletext service. A further £ 1 million is slated from exploitation of S4C’s catalog via international syndication and merchandising.

S4C broadcasts about 30 hours of Welsh-language programming a week. Unlike national Channel 4, which is charged with providing provocative original programming, S4C’s mandate is to supply a wide-ranging service that reflects the output of ITV and BBC. The net transmits a daily block of programs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (entertainment, docus, news and current affairs); additional material, including kidvid, news updates and a daily magazine show, airs during the afternoon.

Besides the 10 free hours from BBC Wales, S4C’s sked is filled by ITV contractor HTV (about eight hours a week), indie producers (another eight hours) and various offshore sources.

Regular rating toppers are BBC’s sudser “Pobol Y Cwm” (“People Of The Valleys”) and, surprisingly, a Welsh-language education course (“Now You’re Talking”).

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