Workshop 2: Digital Innovation in TV from Small Nations: recipes for cultural and commercial success

1-2 March 2016
S4C, Cardiff, Wales


The second workshop of our network saw participants gather at the offices of the Welsh-language public service broadcaster, S4C in order to explore the range of digital innovations in television within small nations. From the outset, industry and academic participants, from Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Scotland, Switzerland and Wales, recognised that digital innovation is a broad term for a diverse range of strategies and debates. These range from the rise of the prosumer and growth of user-generated content to challenges facing regulators and policy-makers who need to balance questions of access, diversity and plurality with major economic considerations.

This report provides an overview of key debates and shares some insights into the strategies being implemented and critically assessed by members of our network. As with previous and subsequent workshops our conversation was collaborative and critical with a strong emphasis on exchange between scholars and industry, and across national frontiers.

Digital technologies pose some of the main challenges facing broadcasters, producers, regulators, and consumers of media content. It’s for this reason that innovation has become central to both the research and industry agenda.

Digital is integral – but still feels new and challenging for professionals in broadcasting

Huw Marshall began by noting that although his role is Digital Manager at S4C, the main task of anyone with ‘digital’ in their title to persuade everyone that digital is implicitly also in theirs. In other words, digital is now everyday and integral to all aspects of broadcasting – or should be. Digital managers, social media managers and those in marketing roles are themselves becoming both content curators and content producers. This means that public service broadcasters require staff with new digital talents if they are to realise their emerging curatorial role. The perception here was that youth was itself an asset for workers, based on the idea (which was not uncontested) that as comfortable users of diverse social media sites they are closer to the so-called ‘digital native’ generation of younger viewers. This generational proximity might add value to a new role in the TV industry. Looking ahead to the workshop 3, participants discussed whether these skills themselves now form a new talent within the TV industry.


©Marina McDonald

The concept of broadcasting is changing –  regulators and policy-makers need to respond

A consistent theme of the workshop’s discussions was the extent to which broadcasting as a concept is itself changing. Both TG4 and S4C colleagues noted that they are operating in an environment where politicians and broadcast remits reflect the assumptions of an analogue era. S4C alluded to the forthcoming independent review of the broadcaster and the need to ensure their remit, created in 1981, reflects the current reality of content creation for a range of digital platforms and not solely for linear TV, albeit that remains vitally important to their role. Consequently, both broadcasters and advocates of public service broadcasting need to explain the enduring value of public provision in the digital era. Minority-language PSBs may be particularly well-placed to do so because digital platforms can achieve objectives that are core to their public purpose to help support and sustain language communities. Digital technologies can enhance language learning and can raise the visibility and reach of languages beyond traditional strongholds. In this way they can enhance and extend the substantial cultural contribution of public service broadcasting for the future. The emergence of public service media as a term is but one element in the wider policy debates regarding the contribution this form of delivery can make to civil society, the economy and to culture more broadly. The EBU’s work on how to express the contemporary value of PSM across Europe is especially noteworthy (PSM Contribution to Society).

Social media can add value to TV marketing if selective and carefully managed

S4C pointed to the appointment of a specific social media manager role, occupied by Gweirydd Davies, as evidence of how the broadcaster was developing a more selective, focussed use of social media to add value to content and enhance relationships with their audiences. The challenge, he argued, was how to turn high reach into genuine audience engagement. So while there’s a new range of possibilities for making content visible, the industry’s understanding of how to assess and produce a return on its social media investment is still just emerging.

Practical examples included a shift from what had been a relatively sporadic pattern of Facebook posting frequently one day and being silent on another, for example, to a deliberate pattern of two posts per day only which encouraged  a more critical, selective assessment by the marketing team of its own content sharing. While this strategy has increased engagement, it has meant that reach has reduced so a key challenge is to find ways of achieving both objectives – reach and engagement.

Alongside discussion of multi-platform commissioning, the importance of social media marketing also raised questions regarding the skills, resources, and access independent production companies have to developing content. Not all broadcasters appear equipped to share content or editing platforms with indies and this may reveal how editorial control and a sense of ownership that belies the more collaborative ethos that characterises social media forms.

Findability – audiences need to be able to locate content easily

In the digital landscape it isn’t necessarily the presence of content which is problematic but rather gaining access to it. Technological affordances such as catch-up services may exist but audiences will only find content and engage with it if it can be accessed easily on a range of devices including smartphones, tablets and Smart TVs. There is huge potential here for broadcasters and producers to reach new audiences, as well as to deepen the relationship with existing ones. Lís Ní Dhálaigh, Acquisitions & Output Director, at the Irish-language public service broadcaster TG4, pointed out that one of  the big advantages that digital has ‘brought to us is firstly that our content is now available worldwide, so it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you can access the TG4 Irish-language content. And secondly that it’s allowing us to communicate directly to our audience and to build a relationship directly to our audience whereas before this we would have been depending on kind of third party advertising platforms.’  In the digital era, TG4 have far more opportunities to engage directly with the substantial Irish diaspora across the globe. The popularity of existing cultural genres can provide a route to developing audiences whose interest in Irish music, for example, can attract them to the increasingly video-based format of the TG4 catch-up service.

Collaboration may be one solution to the problem of findability as demonstrated by the partnership between S4C and BBC which means that since the end of 2014, S4C has had a distinct channel presence (both live and catch-up content) on the BBC’s iPlayer service. Raising the visibility of the channel and its Welsh-language content across the UK has helped yield an increase in online viewing for S4C at a time when all PSBs are experiencing a decrease in linear TV viewing figures. However, existing on other providers’ platforms can bring its own challenges including, for example, ensuring access to detailed measurements of who is watching your own content.

Findability – regulation and innovation

Manufacturers of Smart TVs are significant gatekeepers to public service content. Regulators have an important part to play in making a diversity of content readily available to audiences. Platforms are not neutral routes to content but are themselves businesses with their own distinct priorities and affordances. A striking difference emerged in discussion between the accessibility of these two minority-language broadcasters. Whilst TG4’s catch-up service is available through their Smart TV app, S4C’s is not currently available through Smart TVs. Regulation may be especially pressing in the case of minority-language communities where the market is not sufficient in size to sustain diverse commercial provision or to ensure leverage with large corporations such as Netflix or You Tube beyond the territory. The financial costs of accessing such platforms and services is a major challenge for publicly-funded smaller broadcasters. Policy-makers and regulators need to think creatively about how actively to support plurality online in this business environment where the dominance of a few global corporations could easily squeeze out smaller players and languages.

The abundance of content including via new SVOD services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, means that audiences and policy-makers may be unaware of the substantial political and economic differences between these global commercial operators on the one hand, and smaller-scale national public service broadcasters on the other. In a fascinating and detailed review of SVOD services across Europe, Dr David Fernandez Quijada of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) traced the growth of diverse audio-visual services. Three areas stood out.

Firstly, the rapid growth of these services. In 2010, on-demand audio-visual services in Europe were worth 0.97 billion Euros. By 2014 this had risen to 3.28 billion Euros. Secondly, the dominance of North America in the global on-demand market. In 2014, North America represented 42% of the on-demand market in contrast to Asia-Pacific’s 25% and Europe’s 17%. And thirdly, the substantial differences in investment in new original content by PSBs compared with established commercial subscription providers such as Sky and new online providers such as Netflix. In the UK this echoes concerns raised by the communications regulator, OFCOM.

What is clear is that currently PSBs play a disproportionately large role in making new content compared to may global media firms including SVOD providers such as Netflix. This echoes findings from our first workshop on Internationalisation in which producers noted the slowness of SVODs to invest early in the development funding for projects.

The digital everyday – digital platforms and minority-languages

There is an emerging body of literature that critically examines the impact of new digital technologies for minority-languages. Prof. Elin Hâf Grufudd Jones (Director Mercator Insitiute for Media, Languages and Culture, Aberystwyth University) and Dr Daniel Cunliffe (University of South Wales) a computer scientist specialising in minority-language communications provided evidence of innovations in digital technologies that may help foster and sustain speakers of minority-languages. In particular, digital affordances can help ensure that minority-languages remain alive and current, and avoid becoming relic languages. Social media and UGC platforms can potentially provide new spaces and forms for speakers of minority-languages to communicate with each other in ways that make a holistic, minority-language life visible and audible online. There is considerable value in such visibility for speakers of languages that are all too often rendered invisible in dominant language environments. As Huw Marshall pointed out, this is especially important if minority-language broadcasters and producers are to find and retain younger audiences. From the moment children learn to read and navigate independently online, they are exposed to a huge swathe of English-language material which is incredibly ease to find. In the UK, the You Tube Kids channel has become a major destination, for example. As part of its bid to retain 7-15 year olds, S4C explained how they have been innovating by engaging with young viewers as producers of content:

So we’ve invested along with Welsh Government in projects like game tube, which is showing kids how they do walkthroughs for Minecraft, how they do walkthroughs for computer games, in Welsh, and upload it.  Because what we make them aware of is, if you are making that walkthrough in English you are one of a billion videos on YouTube, if you are doing it in Welsh, you have actually got more of a chance of getting your content noticed and watched.  So you make doing something in Welsh a USP and that’s important to them.

Indies need support to exploit opportunities afforded by VOD

Independent production companies (indies) are a major feature of the TV landscape in small nations such as Scotland and Wales but less so in other small nations such as Norway where there has been relatively less deregulation. Rosina Robson of the UK trade organisation PACT noted the unique terms of trade environment in which UK indies operate and which means that they retain the intellectual property rights over their content. Nonetheless, this legislation may not fully reflect the new digital environment. For example, the terms of trade do not currently cover content on the BBC’s iPlayer catch-up service. Similarly, there are issues regarding the rights of indies vis a vis new SVOD providers and how they use indies’ IP. Rosina noted that almost half of the growth reported in PACT’s most recent 2014-5 annual UK Television Exports survey was going to SVODs such as Hulu, Amazon and Netflix.

Digital mythologies – and their consequences

All too often, discourse on digital technology leads to futurology and an uncritical valorisation of technology as an end in itself. During our discussions, several digital mythologies emerged as the focus of discussion and critique.

Firstly, whilst digital technologies have impacted significantly on the environment in which content is being produced, linear television remains overwhelmingly dominant. The EBU, for example, pointed to their findings that in 2014 more than 90% of the European audio-visual market was in linear TV. Digital per se has not killed television.

Secondly, discussions about digital technology seem frequently lead to an over concentration on young audiences (i.e. children and young adults) at the expense of the great bulk of adult audiences, the majority of whom remain loyal viewers of television. Public service broadcasters’ concern with the changing media consumption patterns of under 25 year olds means that they may neglect the bulk of the adult audience and take their continued support for granted. Digital innovations that appeal to diverse adult audiences merit more attention, not least because an ageing population is a defining characteristic of many European nations both large and small.

Thirdly, while digital technologies are often valorised for their democratic potential, the costs and challenges of accessing (and in the case of broadcasters) developing platforms remains a barrier for both broadcasters and audiences. Included here were discussions about the limited number of languages supported by social media platforms, for example, and the considerable difference in investment in content between PSBs and SVODs. Furthermore, there are significant differences in the penetration and take-up of different digital services across Europe. In part these reveal enduring political differences between European small nations including, as Petros Iosifidis and Trine Syvertsen argued, the extent to which support for public service media is a commonly supported value in national political cultures.

Finally, the fact that technologies make something possible does not mean that people will take up these affordances in the ways envisaged by its creators. Or more succinctly, just because viewers have access to content online does not mean that binge-viewing will replace linear consumption. This was an important element in Vilde Shanke Sundet’s examination of the success and tensions in the partnership between Rubicon, NRK and Netflix in the co-produced series, Lillehammer. For season 1 and 2, the Norwegian public service broadcaster NRK published weekly episodes on its main linear TV channel with weekly catch-up available. In season 3, however, it decided to test binge-publishing, placing the entire season online on its catch-up service. While there was an increase in the number of episodes people consumed at one sitting, overall ratings for the linear schedule held up and remained the dominant mode of consumption despite availability of the entire season online. For NRK, this demonstrated that linear TV remains vitally important as indeed does the art of scheduling.


Ruth McElroy, 14 July 2016

Dr Ruth McElroy is Director of the Centre for Media and Culture in Small Nations, and Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of South Wales.