Bringing Docs In from the Cold

Cardiff, U.K.-based pubcaster S4C heralded the new fall season with a marked change, but not to its schedule - at least, not yet.
January 1, 2004

Cardiff, U.K.-based pubcaster S4C heralded the new fall season with a marked change, but not to its schedule – at least, not yet. Iona Jones began her job as S4C’s new director of programs this past September with a remit to bring intellectually challenging programming to viewers while keeping the ratings up (naturally). Not one to disappoint, she came with clear ideas on how to reinvigorate the channel’s programming, particularly its docs.

Jones oversees a budget of more than £65 million (US$111 million) – a fraction of what other U.K. terrestrials work with. As a result, most of S4C’s factual content is acquired, and international copros account for at least 20 hours per year.

S4C’s factual budget is £14 million ($24 million). Its four doc strands are current affairs, family (programs with widespread appeal), sociological/history and rural history. There is also a Sunday-evening arts series, a genre that Jones has her eye on expanding. Though there are no plans to alter the number of hours of factual programming (about 120 hours per year) nor the themes (history, science and technology), what will change is the way the content is delivered.

‘The challenge is to present these topics in a way that addresses a kind of visual sophistication that today’s audience has,’ says Jones. ‘Just because something is a record of the past doesn’t [mean it has] to take on the appearance of the past in terms of its presentation.’

The feeling that the lineup is in need of resuscitation is shared by Wyn Thomas, senior producer for Cardiff-based AntenaDocs, who says, ‘I honestly felt that S4C had drifted into a lack of variety… [Jones] has vision – instead of the schedule being almost monotone, she’s going to open it up.’

One way to do that is to give docs more prominence, particularly copros, which Jones feels ‘are an extremely invaluable asset,’ so much so that she intends to move them to a more accessible place in the schedule, rather than banishing them in the nether regions of late-night, as many broadcasters tend to do. ‘I’m planning to build a strand for the coproductions, particularly one-off documentaries, which I feel are sometimes in danger of being lost in the middle of an 80-hour schedule,’ she says. ‘I am trying to work on some kind of umbrella brand so the audience gets a stronger signal as to what to expect from us.’

What Jones is looking for are ‘things that are opinionated. Sometimes there’s a temptation to find the middle way in terms of programming,’ she contends, ‘[but] I’m not always interested in hearing both sides of the story.’ She hopes to roll out these changes early this year.

In terms of length, 30 and 60-minute formats have been favored, but Jones would not be averse to programming feature-length docs ‘to create high points in the schedule.’ She also hopes to acquire 5 to 10-minute history-based programming for children, as part of coproduction deals.

Jones’s CV – she holds a post-grad diploma in journalism and was a news editor for the BBC – is likely to generate cautious optimism among Welsh doc-makers that ‘one of theirs’ is on the inside. ‘I think the journalistic background gives me a particular affinity for factual,’ she admits.

And, Jones is no stranger to S4C. From 1995 to 2000, she was director of corporate affairs. Most recently, she was group controller of corporate affairs for Welsh commercial caster HTV. During her tenure there, HTV was bought by London-based Carlton Communications, and Jones was appointed to represent Carlton’s regional holdings on matters relating to the Communications Act. ‘I hope the producers will actually exploit [the new rights] opportunities, because it means that I will get better product in the end,’ she says.

Better product is what Jones intends to fill S4C’s airtime with. The way she sees it, part of her job is to ‘address what I consider to be sort of an intellectual deficit, not just at S4C, but in TV in general,’ she says. ‘My instinct tells me that people are looking for more from television.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.