John Geraint asks Assembly to back Independent Production Fund for Wales

5th November 2009

As was reported in the press, I recently found myself at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay contributing to a really important debate.

The Assembly's Broadcasting Committee is looking into the future of public service content in the light of Ofcom's current review.

Public service content? Call it popular programmes with a purpose; programmes that draw everyone into the national conversation; programmes that point up the crucial issues we face; programmes that imagine and create and confront; programmes that celebrate all that we are and have been and can be.

If we want to continue to enjoy these programmes we're going to have to find new ways of paying for them.

As Ofcom says: "Audiences value competition for the BBC in the provision of public service content, which will require new sources of funding in a digital age. In Wales the key issue is sustaining democratic plurality, given the increasingly devolved nature of Welsh government."

Plurality: in other words, we mustn't leave it all to the BBC. If we're serious about devolution, the Assembly deserves proper scrutiny from other sources. And the richness of our culture needs to be celebrated - and stimulated - from more than one angle.

Over the years, we've found that plurality in the wide range of public service content provided by ITV Wales (formerly HTV Wales). This extended well beyond news and current affairs to quality documentary, arts, entertainment and drama. ITV Wales has reflected our lives in a direct and popular tone, complementing BBC Wales' provision.

But since the consolidation of ITV plc, ITV Wales has lacked the resources to sustain the breadth and volume of this output.

Consequently, unless new sources of funding are found - and quickly - English-language producers simply won't be able to produce quality programmes in Wales other than through the BBC.

So to the idea I brought to the Assembly: an Independent Production Fund to support public service content for Wales.

Ofcom has acknowledged the need for new sources of funding, so the fund should be a market intervention, paid for by the Assembly and/or the UK Government.

Models can be found working in other countries. Canada, like Wales, is a bilingual nation. It has developed a dozen production funds designed to promote quality Canadian content. The funds have commercial and cultural remits, and contribute up to 75% of the costs of selected projects.

In Wales, content funded by an Independent Production Fund could be screened by ITV Wales, the ITV network or, indeed, other UK broadcasters. The broadcaster contributes a negotiated licence fee. From the beginning, and with an increasing importance as time passes, the content would also be distributed online, in forms other than "traditional" television.

Initially, the funding could be calibrated so as to replace the volume of programming already lost from English-language public service output for Wales, and so as to ensure that, going forward, all such content can be produced at adequate public service tariffs.

The impact would be considerable, and the costs affordable. The new fund could be administered by Finance Wales. Alongside public funds from Cardiff Bay and/or Westminster, it might also accept private investment.

Everyone benefits. ITV gets the regulators off its back - and some quality popular content at a substantial discount from its true cost. Private investors get a publicly-backed route to profit. The Assembly gets a boost to the Welsh economy, creating high-value jobs in a knowledge-driven industry. Politicians and policy-makers get plural scrutiny of the executive and a stimulus to the national debate and culture. Producers get quality work and a testing ground for the transition to the brave "new media" world. And the audience gets more choice and the plurality in the reflection of its own experience which it craves.

I am glad to report that the Broadcasting Committee listened and engaged with the idea. Their deliberations continue. Watch this space. Or join the debate yourself.

 

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