Humphrys heats up Edinburgh gabfest

EDINBURGH — Reality TV was put on the rack at the 29th Edinburgh Intl. Television Festival and for once the gabfest’s whipping boy, the BBC, emerged virtually unscathed.

In an industry obsessed by youth and the youth audience, handing the talking shop’s keynote address, the James MacTaggart Lecture, to a 61-year-old BBC anchorman who claims he has not watched the box for five years was asking for trouble.

John Humphrys, ex-BBC foreign correspondent turned presenter and now media commentator, did not disappoint.

In Blighty the cantankerous Humphrys (recently voted one of the 50 most influential people in British media) is best known for hosting BBC Radio 4’s hard news breakfast show, “Today.”

He interviewed the program’s defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan in the infamous broadcast on May 29, 2003, that ignited the spat with the government over the “sexed-up” dossier claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. That led to the Hutton report and the worst crisis in the pubcaster’s history.

Humphreys’ savaging of reality TV — especially “Big Brother” — and what he called its corrupting influence on the medium and its coarsening effect on society by virtue of its “mind-numbing, witless vulgarity” left fest delegates, many of whom create reality fare, deeply divided.

Some at the gabfest, in the Scottish capital Aug. 27-29, dismissed the vet’s remarks as an out-of-touch rant by a “grumpy old man.”

“He can go back to his radio and his books,” suggested Sky One topper James Baker.

“It’s a generation thing,” added Channel 4 press person Yvonne Taylor. “He doesn’t understand contemporary TV and he doesn’t understand young people.”

Perhaps. For although Humphrys’ lecture — delivered in the same hall where more than a decade earlier Rupert Murdoch suggested public-service TV would become marginalized in the U.K. in a multichannel era — took aim at an easy target, many conceded he had a point.

” ‘Big Brother’ is like heroin,” says 23-year-old Kate Dickson, who attended the fest’s Television & Young People program. “I watch it, but I know it’s not good for me.”

Sky topper Dawn Airey, the fest’s executive chair who booked Humphrys, warned against rejecting the lecture out of hand.

“I think John has made us stop and think,” she said. “Some entertainment shows, like ‘Pop Idol,’ can be cruel. We’re expected to laugh at what can be a freak show.”

No one from Endemol, the creator of “Big Brother,” responded to Humphrys’ attack at Edinburgh.

Endemol’s U.K. chairman, Peter Bazalgette, was in Italy finishing a book on “Big Brother.”

Instead, C4, which airs the show in the U.K., stepped into the breech.

Its former CEO, Mark Thompson, the BBC’s new director general, pointed out that commercial revenues generated by “Big Brother” and other reality shows helped pay for “Channel 4 News” and “Operatunity,” the arts reality series praised by Humphrys.

Thompson’s successor at C4, Andy Duncan, making an impressive debut at the gabfest, agreed. He said “Big Brother” was no longer considered innovative, but performed an important commercial function for the station.

Duncan denied there was pressure to make the next series more extreme, presumably by adding more violence and sex. The recent series was the first in the U.K. in which two housemates had sex and C4 blacked out the show when a drunken brawl broke out.

A year ago, BBC toppers like Dyke and Jana Bennett complained Edinburgh had become boring and was no longer a must-attend event.

Thanks to Humphrys, the “grumpy old man” par excellence, and his withering verdict on reality TV, the gabfest can now look forward to its 30th anniversary with a spring in its step.

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