The Welsh Media VIII: The New Media

(Title Image: lifewire.com)

The “New Media” is any form of communication, entertainment or information exchange tied to digital technology and/or the internet. It includes the internet itself, social media, gaming, user-generated content (like blogs) and on-demand services.

Like all “new” things, sometimes the new media is either difficult to understand or seen as a preserve of the young. Is that true? What role does the new media play in Wales?

How has the new media changed the media landscape in Wales?

There’s no denying that the internet has made a huge impact on how and when people in Wales consume the media (Part III).

According to Reach plc’s annual report for 2018 (pdf – p27) Wales Online – the online portal for The Western Mail, South Wales Echo, South Wales Evening Post and their local weekly titles in southern Wales – received just under 27.6million unique page views during 2018, which was a 2% increase on 2017. That makes it Reach plc’s seventh-largest website.

Estimates from the 2015 IWA Media audit (pdf – p65) would put the Daily Post’s website on around 16.7million unique page views a year, and ITV Wales on around 5.8million. According to the BBC’s annual report for 2018-19 (pdf – p 167), BBC Wales spent £12million on online content in 2018, and estimates from the IWA audit put annual unique browsers at BBC Wales online at around 181million and BBC Cymru Fyw at around 4.6million – though it’s unclear what the figures are like now as opposed to in 2015; they’re likely to be larger.

As for independent websites, Wrexham.com appears to get around 1.1-1.5million visits/page views a month, while Deeside.com gets around 400,000.

Unique visitors to Nation.Cymru have been said to be at least 100,000 a month. The average (high estimate) for Senedd Home has been around 50,000 unique pageviews a month for 2019 and around 10,000 unique monthly visitors (those figures don’t include Oggy Bloggy Ogwr and State of Wales).

Echoing something I did with the 2015 IWA report, it’s time for some mathematical gymnastics.

For every £1 BBC Wales spends on online services (including Cymru Fyw), they get around 16 unique browsers. For every £1 I spend directly on Senedd Home, State of Wales and Oggy Bloggy Ogwr combined, I get around 6,213 unique browsers. My sites are, therefore, around 390 times better value for money than the BBC – except it’s not, is it? So it’s not necessarily all about money when it comes to online news; it’s about audience reach, resources (including staff) and reputation. While my work, on paper, is “better value for money”, that doesn’t negate the fact that the BBC sites have about 6000 times the budget and more than 1500 times the audience of Senedd Home. I can pat myself on the back to a certain extent, but I’d be deluding myself to think it means very much in the grand scheme of things.

There are signs of some changes too; Press Gazette reported that the number of average daily visitors to the largest UK newspaper websites had fallen year-on-year at the start of 2019, by as much as 36% in the case of The Metro.

In a report for the UK Department of Culture, Media & Sport published earlier in 2019 (pdf), £11.6billion was spent on online advertising in the UK during 2017 – a compound annual growth rate of 14% since 2008. Internet advertising also took over all other advertising (TV, radio, outdoor) to make up a 52% share.

The majority (£5.8billion) went on search engine advertising, while £2.4billion was spent on social media display ads. Just £1.4billion was spent on display ads on all other websites and phone apps (newspaper websites, independent news websites etc.).

Google, Facebook and Youtube (itself a Google-owned service) took up the lion’s share of advertising spend between them. Amazon, Twitter and other publishers had a relatively small share (pdf – p11)

I covered social media’s impact in terms of media consumption in Part III, but it’s worth reflecting on the new media’s impact on Welsh politics as debate rages on how the internet has affected global politics (rise of populism, conspiracy theories, abuse etc.).

Nearly all Welsh politicians have social media accounts – whether maintained by themselves or staff – and they usually provide immediate commentary and hot takes on events inside and outside the Senedd and Westminster. Plaid Cymru seem to be the most active party online, but since the last time I wrote about this in 2013 there’s now a much bigger Labour, Lib Dem, Brexit Party and Green presence; even the Tories have upped their game. Local councils certainly have social media accounts and many local councillors do as well – though some are more active than others.

All Welsh Government departments have ministerial Twitter accounts to issue shorter, more regular, statements to complement formal written statements.

What’s also noticeable is that fewer politicians now maintain their own websites; they’re far more likely to use a Facebook page for more detailed statements and longer videos and Twitter for shorter statements and curated Twitter-friendly content like short video clips (which may or may not be created by party media teams) and image macros. I suppose it’s because it’s easier to reach local audiences that way and interact directly with constituents at little to no expense. Politicians also (with a few exceptions) don’t maintain blogs and will now release statements, opinion pieces and other articles via curated independent websites such as Click on Wales and (especially in the case of Plaid Cymru AMs) Nation.Cymru which it itself a spiritual successor to the defunct Wales Home and Daily Wales websites.

There’s naturally a negative side to all of this. Arguments seem to start very easily on the Welsh Twittersphere and people who might normally be civil to each other in person come across as shouty lunatics online as it’s a constant race to be heard above the noise. Social media may also amplify support for political positions, parties, politicians and causes which might not have that much support in real life. Trying to cram responses into 140 characters is asking for trouble if you don’t think carefully about what you’re saying – and it can be career-threatening for politicians if taken out of context – while nobody is going to read an essay (heh). My general rule is I won’t write anything on one of my sites or on social media that I wouldn’t be willing to say in person.

Another negative impact of social media is that it gives ready access to politicians, who will always be towards the top of people’s hit lists for abuse. Prior to becoming an AM, Delyth Jewell wrote a paper which touched on online abuse aimed at women politicians (pdf). One conclusion was that the anonymity afforded to social media accounts is at least partly to blame for (sometimes co-ordinated) abuse of women, while in addition, the negative impact and attitudes caused by the poor quality of reporting about women politicians in the mainstream media (i.e. prioritising fashion choices over substance) has made it more acceptable for women politicians not to be taken seriously.

A separate Sheffield University paper from 2018 (pdf) which studied abusive messages received by MPs found that around 4% of all replies were somehow abusive (threats, insults, derogatory) and contrary to prevailing wisdom, Conservative MPs and male MPs were the principle victims – though abuse of women often seems more sexually-charged and gendered if not necessarily less violent;  I doubt many male politicians get rape threats or comments about their appearance – though the latter does happen; Jacob Rees-Mogg, anyone?

Streaming & On-Demand Services

According to Ofcom (pdf – p10), BBC iPlayer was the most popular on-demand service in 2018, being used by 37% of adults.

While BBC iPlayer is the most popular service, this was followed by Netflix (25%) and ITV Hub (24%) – though separate figures from Ofcom for 2018 showed about 15% of UK households had an Amazon Prime subscription and 5% a NOW TV subscription. As mentioned in Part VII, there were 8.2million viewing sessions of S4C content across BBC iPlayer and S4C Clic during 2017-18.

All in all, a third of adults in Wales (33%) subscribe to or use streaming and on-demand services. This was broadly similar to the rest of the UK.

42% of Welsh households had an internet-connected Smart TV by mid-2018 and more than half of all televisions in Wales (52%) were connected to the internet in some way, with popular alternative methods including game consoles and laptop/desktop computers. The under-34s also spent a far greater proportion of time watching Youtube (and presumably the game streaming service, Twitch) than the all-age average.

According to Ofcom, the number of UK subscribers to streaming services overtook traditional pay-TV providers for the first time in 2018 – though, as mentioned in Part VII, Wales has a high proportion of Sky subscribers.

Generally speaking, broadcasting over the internet is cheaper than radio and television. In 2017-18 (pdf – p194), the total cost of BBC Online was £290.3million of which around £107.9million was in distribution and support costs. This compares to distribution and support costs of £175.2million for radio and £459.1million for television. Of course, programmes still have to be funded and made in the first place, so it’s just the platform that’s cheap, not the programming itself.

Gaming

 

“Gwynbleidd” might not be grammatically correct, but…(Pic: via Reddit)

Any discussion on the future of the media without mentioning gaming is worthless.

In 2018, the global games industry was estimated to be worth $135billion a year (£107billion). For want of comparison, the global film industry was estimated to be worth $136billion in the same year.

Take Two’s Red Dead Redemption 2 made an estimated $725million in sales in its first weekend of release in 2018 and only one film has ever beaten that. But games don’t only compete with the film and TV industry on an economic level, you can argue they do so on an artistic, social and creative level as well.

Many modern games have production values as great or greater than anything else put on screen and they perhaps haven’t been taken as seriously as a media form as they perhaps deserve to be.

Some games are design classics; everyone knows Pokemon or Super Mario. There’s also such a thing as an “arthouse game”; the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption 2 and games like No Man’s Sky and Firewatch certainly count as such. Games like Papers, Please! have received acclaim for eliciting empathy and forcing players to think about debates on immigration and border control, while some games like Grand Theft Auto V have generated self-perpetuating art in the form of machinima (using video game environments as settings for short films).

Some games are even educational and it’s probably well worth looking at this in the context of the school curriculum. Open-ended games like Cities Skylines force players to consider the effect of political policies on a wider population and environment, while most games require some form of higher-level thinking to succeed and encourage you to “learn through failure”; Kerbal Space Program has a fairly advanced orbital physics simulator, while the appropriately-named Paradox Studios are notorious for this – Crusader Kings II is a frustratingly labyrinthine medieval political and dynastic simulator (featuring the Welsh principalities). Minecraft has also been cited as being therapeutic for people on the autistic spectrum.

So, where does Wales fit into this?

You’ll probably struggle to find many games specifically set in or about Wales beyond the obvious candidates (Football Manager etc.), though the highly-regarded Witcher series (based on Polish novels of the same name) does feature Welsh accents, names and even includes elements of Welsh mythology and the Welsh language hybridised with Irish and Scottish Gaelic.

Most games development in Wales has tended to focus on independent mobile and casual gaming, including tie-ins with TV programmes. Independent games tend to be cheap and cheerful, but are popular on mobile devices and hark back to arcade-style games from older consoles which are – generally – more addictive and compulsive than “blockbusters”.

One of the largest independent games developers in Wales – Wales Interactive, based in Pencoed – has partly-revived the FMV genre (interactive movies) and is currently working on a game based on the Welsh folktale of the Maid of Sker (Y Ferch o’r Sger). Their games are generally well-received, with the occasional dud. Late Shift won a BAFTA Cymru award in 2018.

Tiny Rebel Games, a spin-out of the brewery of the same name, produced several Dr Who-themed games and recently announced a Wallace & Gromit-themed game.

The gaming industry in Wales is still very much a work in progress and it’ll probably be a very long time before we have a studio of the stature of Scotland’s Rockstar North. There is, at least, an industry body in place (Games Wales) as well as a dedicated BAFTA Cymru award.

While years ago the number of courses in computer games development in Wales were few and far between as universities chose to cut back on them (having often been seen as a “Mickey Mouse option”), they’ve made a comeback with games development courses now available at Glyndwr University, Trinity St David University, Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of South Wales.

Gaming does, at long last (but about 15 years too late), appear to be taken seriously at the Senedd, with the first debate on the subject being held earlier this year. There are also rapid changes occurring within the industry, such as  subscription-based gaming services (as opposed to the purchase of stand-alone games), the growth of e-sports and the development of cloud-based gaming platforms like Google Stadia which don’t require a specific console or PC.

Issues & Challenges facing the New Media in Wales

Infrastructure challenges – I covered a lot of this in Part II, but the main issues include: digital exclusion (particularly of older age groups who might not have the know-how to use the internet), broadband and internet “not-spots” and the impact (and inevitable slow uptake) of 5G technology. According to the National Survey for Wales (pdf), in 2018, 85% of Welsh households had internet access, but that still means around 195,000 households don’t.

Online advertising revenues – As mentioned earlier, online advertising is dominated by just two corporations – Google and Facebook. This makes them very powerful “gatekeepers” for online advertising, despite the many alternative ways of revenue-raising online (donations/ peer-to-peer/crowdfunding, paywalls, advertorials, influencer advertising, affiliate advertising). There’s also the impact of ad blockers on revenues; you can’t block a print ad and that’s probably why online ad revenue hasn’t caught up with print revenues for newspaper publishers.

Online Piracy & Copyright Infringement – Despite the relatively easy access to streaming services and alike, online piracy is arguably as popular as ever despite attempts to shut down famous sites like The Pirate Bay. There are countless torrent websites, while illegal online streaming of live events with exclusive rights holders (like football) is an accepted norm. There are philosophical arguments about the rights and wrongs of intellectual property and the value of exclusive rights but ultimately the only way piracy will be combated is if prices came down – which would have a knock-on impact on the entertainment industry – or producers and developers insert “traps” into pirated copies of their works, like many games developers have.

Regulation, political extremism and cyberbullying – It’s fair to say the internet is a bit of a Wild West at times and, as said, you see that at a Welsh level with the amount of abuse and deliberate misinformation thrown around on social media. I honestly hate using social media but I’ve got no choice as it’s the only way to reach an audience. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be regulated in some way, particularly to protect the public from harmful conspiracy theories (anti-vaccination etc.), false accusations and extremist material. The question, as always, is how do you balance that with freedom of speech? It might have to be a global effort as the internet knows few borders – both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. This is a subject in itself.

Is games development taken as seriously as it should be? – The debate on the media in Wales has usually been confined to television, the film industry and issues relating to journalism. Gaming has been sidelined despite arguably being as big or bigger than any of them and perhaps even far more relevant to younger age groups. You do get a sense that gaming and other forms of online media have been sidelined because they’re not taken seriously by politicians and civic society – maybe it’s because they’re too new or politicians don’t use them themselves. When the Senedd debated this earlier this year, you assume that it was younger staff who wrote AMs’ contributions – though no doubt some AMs do play games. Wales could, yet again, miss out on an industry of the future for the sake of trying to shore up what dying old media industries we have already.

Is streaming about to be killed by greed? – Netflix changed the game when it switched from DVD home delivery to streaming at a very affordable price, but will it even be around in 10 years? Several studios are launching separate paid-monthly streaming services very shortly (Disney, Apple, HBO Max and the BBC-ITV Britbox tie-up) and subsequently withdrawing their content from services like Netflix. Like issues around TV sports rights, this is supposed to be good for consumer choice but ultimately paying £9-a-month or so for one subscription to watch current content could easily become £36-a-month to watch similar content. Streaming and on-demand services do seem to have the makings of a “bubble” because there’s only so much you can ask people to pay to watch old shows.

  • 27
    Shares