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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 February 2005, 17:50 GMT
All change for TV's digital world
TV sets

A clip of rugby star Shane Williams racing past England's defence was an unlikely start to a key announcement on the future of Welsh TV.

But broadcast regulator Ofcom clearly felt there was no better way of showing how TV can still unite viewers.

Broadcasting is undergoing huge change, however, and such "event TV" is becoming increasingly rare as channels multiply and audiences fragment.

That is particularly so in Wales, where viewers have gone digital in droves.

When Ofcom began its review in autumn 2003, 48% of homes in the UK had digital TV. Now, less than 18 months on, it is 56% and still growing.

In an age where hundreds of channels are available, all TV stations are under growing pressure to compete, and especially when they are chasing advertising.

All that helps to explain why Ofcom is reviewing public service broadcasting, and why the implications for viewers in areas like Wales are potentially huge.

The recommendations for ITV Wales could mean that it supplies more programmes for the ITV network, but they could also lead to fewer ITV Wales programmes for Wales alone.

Sky digital electronic programme guide
There are now hundreds of digital channels to choose from
Ofcom proposes at least half ITV's network programmes are made outside London, up from one-third.

As for programming exclusively for Wales, ITV Wales will now have to produce a minimum of four hours of non-news output per week, a small cut from the existing 4.5 hours.

Opt-outs

This will be cut again, however, as conventional analogue is phased out and replaced by digital. The idea is that the UK will be wholly digital by 2013.

As soon as the first area of the UK goes digital in the next few years, ITV Wales' non-news programming will be cut to three hours a week.

But Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are being treated differently to England. ITV's English regions will have to produce only 1.5 hours of non-news, down from three hours, and then only half-an-hour after the change to digital.

Ofcom will also cut the cost to ITV Wales of putting on local programmes. In future, when ITV Wales "opts out" of the network, it will not have to pay for that more expensive programme.

The future of S4C has also been under scrutiny by Ofcom.

There were only a handful of stations when S4C was founded alongside Channel 4 in 1982, but Ofcom said S4C was "under increasing pressure from declining audiences due to the high level of digital take-up in Wales, particularly amongst younger viewers".

S4C is funded by government grant and advertising, but Ofcom warned that without change its finances would "deteriorate significantly" over the next few years.

The regulator suggested three options for S4C.

New ideas

First, the status quo, with revised arrangements for working with the BBC, which supplies all S4C's news output, and "greater editorial control" for S4C.

A second option was incorporating S4C into the BBC, although the regulator warned against it. Ofcom said independence was important to S4C's success, and there was a risk that the BBC's priorities would conflict with the Welsh language broadcaster.

The third suggestion, and the one backed by Ofcom, was for S4C to go out to competitive tender for a period of 10 years.

Ofcom hoped that this system could bring new ideas and funding opportunities for delivering Welsh language broadcasting.

The regulator will consult on its ideas until 19 April. The UK government will make the final decision on S4C, whereas Ofcom will decide on ITV.


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