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Media: Over the wire

It has been broadcasting to Britain's armed forces since 1943. Now an air vice marshall is leading SSVC into an assault on a wider front. By Meg Carter
It has been called Auntie's secret cousin, and with just cause. For as a media organisation that broadcasts around the globe from a state- of-the-art TV and radio production facility just half an hour from central London, SSVC is hardly known about at home but, like the BBC, has a committed following abroad.

SSVC, a registered charity, holds the lucrative contract to provide television and radio for British forces around the world. And, again like the BBC, it's thinking big in strategic terms. Its aim? To become an international, commercial broadcast player.

Leading the assault is air-vice-marshal David Crwys-Williams, former Commander of the British Forces Falkland Islands and managing director of SSVC since 1993. Crwys-Williams is every inch the formal military man. Well-groomed and given to speaking in clipped tones, he takes great pride in the organisation and the changes he has wrought.

Over the past three years he has streamlined the broadcaster and encouraged its commercial diversification: SSVC is involved in one of the bids for London's new FM commercial radio licence, due to be awarded by the Radio Authority early in the New Year. "We have a huge range of creative and technical expertise previously used largely for the armed forces at home and overseas," he explains. "We aim to be a major international supplier of media and multimedia products and services to the public and private sector."

It will be a long haul, SSVC's managers admit. It is the broadcast organisation no one has really heard of, Crwys-Williams concedes. But he is convinced all that is set to change.

SSVC's origins date back to the Second World War. British forces radio was launched in 1943 in North Africa, where Lord Hanson, the entrepreneur, was among the early presenters. By the Fifties, forces radio had spread around the globe and since then has offered a welcome first break for many household names - from David Jacobs to Sarah Kennedy. "By the end of the war, many people were making training films," Crwys-Williams explains. "There were entertainment troupes, bands and concert parties and there were forces cinemas."

The Ministry of Defence set up a private company, Services Kinema Corporation, as an arm's length registered charity to manage many of these activities. Broadcasting continued to be run by civil servants until 1982, when British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) television and radio were brought under the same company. And so the Services Sound and Vision Corporation was born.

As a charitable organisation, SSVC can secure favourable deals with mainstream broadcasters who supply the bulk of British forces broadcast output. BFBS television comprises 18-hours-a-day of re-packaged BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky fare broadcast to around 100,000 viewers around the world. News, magazines and children's programmes - around 15 per cent of total output - are made in-house. BFBS radio comprises two 24-hour services: BFBS 1 and BFBS 2. The latter is a cross between Radio 2 and Radio 4, broadcast in Germany and Cyprus. The former, a Radio 1-style format, is listened to by forces, their families and local communities giving it an audience "of millions", SSVC boasts.

"By 1990, it was quite clear with so-called peace breaking out in Europe, demand for the [broadcasting] service would contract with the armed forces," Crwys-Williams says. At the same time, the government began inviting private companies to tender for certain departmental contracts. Centralised purchasing of many videos, training films and other media products was phased out as budget control devolved down the ranks. Thanks to its close relationship with the forces and its track record, SSVC last month successfully renewed its pounds 60m contract to supply forces radio and TV for the next five years. Thereafter, however, it will be expected to tender alongside privately owned competitors - as is already the case in other aspects of its forces- related work. Small wonder, then, that SSVC has begun courting private contracts. Third-party contracts now include making corporate programmes for Volvo; hiring out studio space to BBC productions, including Points of View, and relaying services around the world using SSVC's cluster of high-powered satellite dishes. Teleport clients include Reuters Television, Associated Press TV and the BBC. It has made and sold TV programmes to BBC 1 and BBC 2 - including VE and VJ day documentaries featuring Princess Margaret and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Today, British forces broadcasting represents just 27 per cent of SSVC's annual turnover of pounds 45m. And significant scope remains for further growth. The company is looking at marketing its live entertainment skills, for instance, with the accent on overseas markets.

The company's involvement in the London commercial radio licence application is in partnership with Armenian businessman Toby Mansurian, whose dream it is to launch a pan-European commercial radio station. They hope to launch Eurozone next year - achieving a pan-European audience of 12 million by the end of the decade.

In partnership with Mansurian, SSVC will apply for local radio licences in different territories, enabling local language regionalisation. The idea is to have an Anglo-French service in France, Anglo-German in Germany, and so on. Distribution will also be achieved through re-formatting existing stations. This patchwork approach will deliver a single station with pan- European focus sensitive to local cultural needs.

With its many satellite dishes, optical fibre and microwave links to London, SSVC also hopes to cash in on the digital broadcast revolution by offering transmission and digitisation services. It has invested heavily in new technology, and has also benefited from broadcast infrastructure put in place during recent conflicts, notably in the Gulf.

Last month, SSVC effectively re-launched introducing two brand-named divisions - TLI and Visua - with which it hopes to take on the world. Continual investment and a close eye on the changing demands of the market are critical if it is to realise this dream.

Which is why a string of recent appointments have brought in talent from better-known commercial players like Virgin, Chrysalis and Team. Not bad going for a charity whose activities have long been seen as a public service for the welfare of our boys (and girls) in the forces overseas.

"We continue as a charity," Crwys-Williams says. "We do not declare a dividend to outside shareholders - we pay our dividend into armed forces welfare organisations and, because of the competitive nature of the market, through re-investment in our own business." For the time being SSVC has no plans to apply for further UK commercial broadcast licences. But Crwys- Williams rules out nothing. "With our skills, opportunities come in daily. We are staying flexible and responsive," he says, adding with a wry smile, "We are a force to be reckoned with"n