Wales on the BBC

12 May 2016

Article by Robin Wilkinson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

This article is taken fromKey issues for the Fifth Assembly’, published on 12 May 2016.

Despite many recent Welsh successes in the television and film industry, Wales remains under-represented in BBC productions. Why does this matter and what can be done about it?

A graph showing BBC Cymru Wales spend on English language television declining from £24.6 million in 2006-7 to £20.8 million in 2014-15.

In many respects, the television industry in Wales is going from strength to strength. Between 2005 and 2014 the industry’s turnover increased by 17.5%, and the number of people employed in the creative industries in Wales grew by 52.5% to 47,000 over the same period. A flurry of recent activity in the Welsh TV and film industry has spurred the development of new studios, such as Pinewood in Wentloog and the BBC’s Roath Lock facility in Cardiff Bay.

Growth in BBC network spend in Wales

The BBC has been an important part of this growth. Back in 2006 the BBC set itself the target of investing 17% of its overall network spend in the devolved nations, broadly in line with their combined population size. In 2014-15 Wales secured 7.8% – or £59.1 million – of UK BBC network television spend, greater than its 4.9% population share.

In 2014 BBC Cymru Wales Director Rhodri Talfan Davies heralded the fact that the BBC’s two biggest global exports – Doctor Who and Sherlock – are now made in Wales. This is no doubt great news for the many people these productions employ, not to mention the wider impact they have on the Welsh economy, but what do they tell us about Wales?

Welsh portrayal on the BBC: the scale of the problem

Between 2006-7 and 2014-15 BBC Cymru Wales spend on English language TV output for Welsh audiences has reduced from £24.6 million to £20.8 million: a reduction of about 30% in real terms. This funding reduction has led to a situation where many stakeholders in Wales are concerned about the lack of distinctly Welsh portrayal on BBC programming. Although the increased BBC network spend in Wales has been widely welcomed, the vast majority of these programmes – such as Sherlock, which though filmed in Cardiff is set largely in London – have no specific Welsh aspect.

Does this matter? Witnesses in the Fourth Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee inquiry into the BBC Charter Review (2015-16) certainly thought so. Green Bay Media’s Dr John Geraint stated that English-language television in Wales has been ‘eroded to such an extent that it no longer represents the rounded life of the nation’.

The BBC’s role in the Welsh media landscape is enhanced by the lack of a strong commercial sector capable of compensating for any shortage in BBC activity. For example, Ofcom has noted that the ‘absence of a strong indigenous print media [in Wales] is in stark contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland’. This Welsh media deficit has fuelled a situation where, as recent research shows, people in Wales are often poorly informed about how devolved politics affects their daily lives.

The Director General of the BBC, Lord Hall, acknowledged the problem at a reception in the Assembly back in 2014. He admitted that ‘English language programming from and for Wales has been in decline for almost a decade’. While recognising ITV Wales’s role in this, he acknowledged that the BBC’s output in respect of Wales had been ‘eroded’.

There is a broad consensus about the nature of the problem – from the previous Welsh Government to stakeholders such as the Institute of Welsh Affairs and up to the Director General of the BBC himself. But what can be done about it?

Solving the problem

The First Minister called for an extra £30 million a year for the BBC in Wales, claiming that without this funding, ‘Welsh audiences risk being dealt the worst deal of any nation in the UK’. The Institute of Welsh Affairs endorsed this call in its Media Audit in 2015. Rhodri Talfan Davies has indicated that the BBC management is receptive to these requests for extra funding, though how this receptiveness converts to extra money remains to be seen.

Funding of BBC Cymru Wales is one side of the coin: what about the £59.1 million of network spend that the BBC invests in Wales each year? Witnesses to the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee inquiry noted that, despite an increasing number of network productions being made in Wales, the big commissioning decisions continue to be made in London. The result of this, the Committee heard, is that an implicit London-centric bias prevents BBC executives commissioning network programmes that deal with and reflect distinctly Welsh issues.

The Committee suggested improvements in two key areas to address this problem. First of all, it felt that that the BBC should decentralise its commissioning arrangements so that more big decisions are made in Wales. Secondly, it felt that the BBC should set itself targets for Welsh portrayal in its network productions, and report on these annually.

The challenge in Wales

The next step in the BBC Charter renewal process is the publication by the UK Government of its white paper(published on 12 May 2016). This will outline how the BBC aims to operate in respect of Wales in the forthcoming charter period.

The BBC is anticipating a 10% real-terms budget cut between 2017-18 and 2021-22, and calls for extra funding are also being made by other nations and regions in the UK. The challenge for politicians here is to articulate a unique argument as to why the need for more money is most acute in Wales.

Key sources

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