November 1 2017 marks the 35th anniversary of the first broadcast by S4C, the Welsh language television channel. On the day it went live, S4C became the fourth channel available to Welsh television viewers, while its counterpart Channel 4 began broadcasting in England and Scotland the following day.
When UK television was still analogue, S4C carried rescheduled Channel 4 programmes as well as original Welsh language programming in peak hours. This was not the first time that television was broadcast in Welsh but S4C was to become the home for it. From the 1960s onwards, the BBC in Wales, Teledu Cymru/TWW and later HTV Wales broadcast Welsh language content regularly – but it wasn’t enough.
Setting the channel up was no easy task, to say the least. S4C was only established as a result of many years of protest, lobbying, reports and commissions. Once in office, the Conservative government of 1979 reneged on its manifesto promise to deliver a channel. But very soon it was forced to U-turn after former Plaid Cymru leader Gwynfor Evans threatened to go on hunger strike unless the government kept its word.
Intended as an experiment, initially for three years, S4C soon found its place in contemporary Welsh life. Through television, the Welsh language was used to cover the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall. Its focus on local, national and international sport drew new audiences to the language. It was used in world class animation and to create Oscar-nominated production Hedd Wyn (1992).
As a channel for the whole of Wales, broadcasting its programmes in Welsh – a language spoken by just over 500,000 people, around 20% of the population – S4C became an early advocate of language technology to try to bridge the gap between Welsh and English. Programmes were shown with subtitles in English, and later in Welsh too, for adult learners of the language as well as casual viewers.
Whether this channel was a broadcaster or possibly a key Welsh institution in the wider language normalisation process was often a matter of debate. A false dichotomy, no doubt, as any public service broadcaster is part of a wider political context that brings with it economic, cultural, social and sociolinguistic benefits – and even more so in the case of a minority, or minoritised language broadcaster.
S4C was not alone in its plight as a minority language TV channel, though it was seen as the trailblazer. The Basque language channel ETB1 began broadcasting on December 31 1982, followed by the Catalan TV3 in 1983, and Galician TVG in 1985.
But S4C was very much the misfit here. It was set up by parliament to serve a country that three years previously had rejected devolution. The other channels were part of broadcasting corporations set up by the respective parliaments of the newly formed autonomous communities in Spain. There, regional autonomy and its broadcasting corporations mapped onto each other in a neat and corresponding pattern, although many speakers of the languages lived beyond these boundaries – including in France – and were often poorly served as a result.
Twenty years after devolution was accepted by referendum in Wales, broadcasting, including Welsh language broadcasting and S4C, continue to be matters for the UK rather than Welsh government. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government fundamentally changed the funding mechanism of S4C without warning in 2010 – resulting in a cut to its budget by a quarter and placing the main responsibility of funding it on the BBC through the licence fee.
These cuts have meant that S4C has been scaled back significantly, and prompted new concerns that key services like English subtitling and its HD channel will have to be reduced if not dropped altogether.
The Catalan and Basque broadcasters, meanwhile, have mirrored the developments that most public service broadcasters have made in bringing on niche channels – such as dedicated children’s channels and 24-hour news channels – in order to be key digital players in the lives of their bilingual audiences, as well as to compete with Spanish language media services and connect with speakers living beyond their traditional territories.
S4C was an early adopter of online technology – webcasting in 2006 before the launch of the iPlayer – and it had a second channel, S4C2 until 2010. Its strong brand, Cyw, is the go-to place for media content for pre-school and young children in Welsh. Similarly, high profile bilingual nordic noir drama Y Gwyll/Hinterland has been sold to dozens of countries and is available on Netflix. Sport continues to attract too. There is clearly an audience interested in the content produced by S4C – and yet repeat levels have hit 58% due to the budget cuts.
S4C and other public service media outlets are no longer solely competing with two or three terrestrial channels, but with a whole host of digital channels, social media, online content and gaming, both mainstream and niche. Welsh language content is not as visible as it was in 1982 and can be missed or avoided quite easily. So S4C needs to be able to reach and build its audiences, across all generations and platforms. Its presence should be felt – both visibly and emotionally – in the daily lives of the language communities that it serves.
S4C’s remit, governance, accountability, and its partnership with the BBC are currently under review. But questions still remain over whether it should be London or Cardiff making key decisions about the Welsh channel’s future.