Creative collaborations: how international networks helped lead the way for Welsh TV

Television has always been a tough business: but in an increasingly globalised world in the thrall of a succession of technical revolutions that have swept through broadcasting, it's got even tougher.

This is particularly true for broadcasters in small nations who, although they exist to serve local viewers, must in many ways compete on the same stage as multinational media giants, and without access to the same resources.

To help find ways to close this gap, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has funded opportunities for collaboration between the TV industry and European academics, led by the University of South Wales.

The aim was to make it easier to share knowledge and insight between the academic world and the creative sector and address the specific challenges and opportunities facing television broadcasters and producers in small nations.

Siwan Hywel, Partnerships Officer at Welsh broadcaster S4C says that this multidisciplinary, international research network “helped us to target exchanges across national and disciplinary borders and to better understand how TV in small nations can build economic capacity whilst also maintaining its cultural and linguistic commitments to the core audience.”

It was that commitment to local viewers – and how to maintain it in the face of intense competition and with limited resources – that was at the heart of the debates.

“For small nations the television industry performs a number of important cultural, political and economic functions: constructing cultural identities, contributing towards a democratic public sphere, and enabling minority-languages to thrive in the modern world,” says Dr Ruth McElroy, Principal Investigator at Television from Small Nations and Director of the Centre for Media and Culture in Small Nations at the University of South Wales.

“However, several structural challenges shape their TV industries, including less access to talent, fewer capital resources, higher production costs, and a smaller market for advertising and licence fee revenue.”

The AHRC-funded network directly addressed these issues by drawing together academic experts and key stakeholders in the television industry, with expertise across academia, policy, public sector broadcasting and independent television production.

Dr McElroy used the project findings to provide evidence to Westminster‘s Welsh Affairs Committee Inquiry into Welsh Broadcasting and the National Assembly of Wales’ Inquiry into BBC Charter Renewal in 2015-16.

She offered insights into the need to safeguard the sustainability of TV production in Wales for Welsh viewers at a time when cuts are likely and the role of public service broadcasters in helping to deliver this sustainability.

Dr McElroy’s evidence fed into the final reports for both inquiries. The research outputs were enriched thanks to the interdisciplinary and international dynamic of the team: the academic experts came from the UK and Denmark with backgrounds ranging from broadcasting policy to minority-language media, and the advisory board had representation from the European Broadcasting Union.

Commenting on the value of the international research partnership, Dr McElroy says: “Because the landscape of television production is becoming increasingly globalised, we always felt it necessary to create a genuinely international research network.

“For one thing, there’s nothing like having an international team on a project to make you question your own national assumptions! […] Our partnership meant we could each use our existing links with both higher education and industry to draw together experts from a dozen different European countries.”

It was that human contact – and the free exchange of ideas that came with it – that may prove to be one of the most lasting legacies of the project.

Before the AHRC took the decision to facilitate this conversation, there had been few opportunities to talk together directly. But it won't be the last.

Dr Roberto Suárez Candel, Head of the European Broadcasting Union’s Media Intelligence Service, says: “Looking at television as a research topic from the point of view of the small nations has widened our perspective.

“This will also certainly bring benefits to the many public service media organisations in small nations that are among the EBU Members that we serve.”

Or, as Mads Møller Andersen, a PhD student at Aarhus University, put it: “I can still feel the high after all the wonderfully productive discussions.”

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