Confabbers: Commercial pressure dulling Blighty TV

EDINBURGH — British execs and formats may be flavor of the month in the U.S., but back home in Blighty the television community is going through angst about its declining creative standards.

That was the message to emerge from the Edinburgh Television Festival (Aug. 24-26), the industry’s annual talking shop. Once a hotbed of radical chic, these days the event is a professional conference as corporate as the business it serves.

In the Scottish capital, keynote speaker David Liddiment, ITV’s director of channels, met with widespread approval when he told delegates that “commercial pressures on all of us risk making television a more homogenous, more driven, less interesting place.”

It was a surprising claim from the exec who helped bring ITV back from the brink three years ago by the ruthlessly commercial maneuver of stripping “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” five nights a week.

He suggested that British TV was falling victim to copycat ideas and a collective loss of nerve. He singled out arch-rival BBC1 for blame, accusing the pubcaster’s flagship channel of prioritizing ratings over its traditional role as the industry’s creative spear-carrier.

New game

“I believe in the BBC … but I worry that it is losing sight of its cultural responsibilities in its rush to beat the commercial opposition at its own game,” he said.

Judged by the fall schedules, short on innovation but big on revivals, makeover shows, crime and sure-fire soaps, most critics would agree with the ITV maven.

At Edinburgh, BBC reps looked peeved. Director of television Mark Thompson urged patience, arguing that BBC1 was being overhauled with extra investment in drama and entertainment.

“BBC1 is in transition,” he admitted. “At its best under David, ITV has had real moments of courage and flair. This is good for the whole industry, but ITV doesn’t have a monopoly on conviction and creativity … In future you will see more challenging, edgy drama on BBC1 and more specialist-factual. We’re looking for cutting-edge material across all genres.”

Few festival attendees doubted Thompson’s sincerity. But as the weekend wore on, most delegates expected his name to be on the short list of candidates competing for the top job at rival pubcaster Channel 4, vacant since chief exec Michael Jackson announced he was leaving to run USA Entertainment.

Guarding creativity

C4, perhaps even more than the BBC, is seen as the guardian of creative innovation within British TV. It, too, became more ratings-driven under Jackson, though without abandoning its cultural remit. The choice of his successor will reveal how far the web wants to continue down the commercial route.

One of Thompson’s rivals for the C4 post is Dawn Airey, CEO of Channel 5, the upstart web she once summed up for providing “football, films and fucking” for C5’s mostly blue-collar audiences.

Now keen to adapt a more upscale editorial approach, Airey, an ex-C4 head of arts and entertainment, was forthright when asked at Edinburgh about her own interest in succeeding Jackson.

“I’m not ruling myself in or out for the Channel 4 job,” she said, but then revealed that a straw poll among fellow execs at a festival dinner had placed her joint favorite with head of Endemol U.K. Peter Bazalgette, the man behind “Big Brother,” C4’s biggest ratings hit.

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