We recently received an email from an anonymous address. Our correspondent indicated that the future of live Pro12 coverage on Welsh-language channel S4C could be under threat, suggesting that forthcoming cuts to the channel’s budget had obliged it to consider withdrawing from broadcasting live matches.
At first glance, it would seem odd for S4C to consider scrapping one of their most watched strands. However, as a result of the four-year £3m per season agreement signed by the BBC and S4C with the Pro12 in August 2014 – along with Sky’s entry into the market for around £5m per season – S4C lost its prized Saturday evening slot for live rugby. Its Annual Report for this year indicates that the channel is not happy with this obligation, noting:
“We had to move sport to Sundays and create a new slot called Clwb in order to gather sports coverage together under a single umbrella following changes in the availability of rugby rights. Although Clwb has worked creatively its audience reach is not the same as live rugby previously on Saturday nights. We will be reviewing this provision over the coming months to see if there are better ways of presenting rugby and football within the limits of our rights packages”.
A quick scan of BARB data (and there are significant concerns with the way this is collected, but it allows a like-for-like comparison of sorts) suggests that viewing figures for live domestic rugby coverage has reduced from 90,000+ (when broadcast on Saturday evenings) to around 50,000 this season (now that it has the less-sought-after 4pm on a Sunday slot).
So, is the current deal providing value for money, particularly at a time of budgetary pressures?
It’s certainly true that S4C’s budget is under considerable strain. A few years ago it operated on a budget of around £100m. The slash-and-burn approach of the UK Government firstly off-loaded much of the responsibility for funding the channel onto the BBC (around 85% of its funding now comes from the TV Licence fee through the BBC Trust), and then set about – contrary to a manifesto commitment made before last year’s General Election – cutting the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) contribution from next year so that it will reduce from £6.7m to £5m by 2019-20. With the BBC Trust yet to settle on its contribution to S4C for the same period, but in the knowledge that various UK-wide BBC concerns were facing cuts (or, in the case of BBC3, a relaunch as an online-only channel), it’s little wonder that Welsh MPs called a debate in the House of Commons this week to discuss the Government’s approach. More surprising was that the debate was called by a Conservative MP, Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire). He’s clearly struggling to get to grips with this politics lark as he rather naively said
““[Our] manifesto commitment made it plain that we would protect S4C and the autumn statement defaults from that. I want to make the point that a manifesto promise is a manifesto promise.”
The Prime Minister, Lord Tuppy Spoonface, promised to
“… ensure that we meet both the wording and the spirit of our manifesto promise to make sure that it continues to be a very strong channel.”
We asked S4C to comment. It replied with the following:
“We’re extremely proud to be able to televise the Pro12 rugby on S4C which we know our viewers greatly appreciate. Following recently announced further cuts to S4C’s budget we are currently reviewing all our options regarding the programmes we commission, however no decisions have yet been made on how this will impact on-screen services”.
That hardly sounds like a reassurance that live domestic Welsh-language rugby coverage is going to continue.