There was an air of optimism at the Edinburgh International TV Festival this year. “We are feeling much more confident” read the headline quote in the Guardian festival edition. Gone was the “how do we compete with these digital upstarts who have stolen our audiences?” pessimism of the past few years, as informitv correspondent Brent MacGregor reports.
Senior managers at the big broadcasters are sometimes the pantomime villains and sometimes the heroes. The faithful that gathered for the MacTaggart lecture certainly gave BBC Director General Mark Thompson a better reception than James Murdoch had last year. Was he the overpaid villain about to wipe away thousands of pensions or would he make the speech of his life and save the BBC and public service broadcasting?
Of course it’s never quite so simple and Thompson’s MacTaggart seemed to be taking place in a time/space warp right out of Dr Who. There was a strange latency in the signal. Parts of his speech were delayed replies to James Murdoch’s provocations last year and indeed part of a decades long debate about the funding of public service broadcasting but it was also clearly aimed at the future in the form of new Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt who was in the audience.
He made a matinee appearance the next day, very relaxed and conciliatory in his interview with Steve Hewlett. Clearly a man with strong views, the Culture Secretary thought BBC salaries were too high and called for permanent structural transparency in all public sector expenditure. He wanted the BBC not to stifle commercial competitors but could only offer breakfast TV from the 1980s as an example. The BBC web site was surprisingly not mentioned in this regard. Local TV stations were important in his view with American, Swedish and Canadian examples offered. The minister assured the audience, as he had assured the Director General at the post McTaggart dinner, that the DCMS had not even started to think about the licence fee yet.
The games session with stars from the Edinburgh Interactive Festival informed us that things were not all rosy in the computer games world. We were reminded that only three games sold over a million copies in the UK. The advice to television colleagues was that spin-off games did not work as well as might be expected. However, web browser games, many played through Facebook, had both a lower cost and potentially greater reach than traditional disc or online formats.
The annual Future View Lecture was not given by a millionaire whizz kid from social networking or an online gaming genius but from a Hollywood agent turned producer now working in 3DTV. After being issued with the glasses which made the audience all look like Bono, the demonstration clips had to be shown a small monitor rolled in for the purpose as the projector could not cope with the extra dimension. This was the kind of new technology many in TV were used to. It was certainly a future that could be understood and was clearly an unthreatening, if in your face novelty, not an industry destroying paradigm shift.
The Television Festival seemed to be back where folk like it — a celebration of the TV industry, an arena for its debates, political intrigues and even long running family feuds with a little bit of glitz and some technology thrown in. We even saw the return of preview showings when television programmes, where the highlight of the bill was a BBC Four film on the creation of Coronation Street, some fifty years ago. Clearly the industry is allowing itself to be inward looking and even a bit self celebratory after the hair shirt years.