Birt’s words irk festgoers at Edinburgh

Fest attended by over 1,600 TV professionals

EDINBURGH, Scotland — TV toppers made celebrities of themselves at the 30th Edinburgh Intl. Television Festival that closed Sunday, following a long weekend that former BBC director general John Birt would sooner forget.

Birt, who retired from the pubcaster five years ago and who is an adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, helped launch the gabfest by delivering the keynote MacTaggart lecture, in which he warned that Blighty’s historic system of public service TV is threatened by the digital revolution.

In Edinburgh, attended by more than 1,600 TV types, it was hard to find anyone with a good word to say about Birt’s lecture. “Painful,” “self-serving” and “tedious” were some of the kinder words used to describe Birt’s talk.

“I’ve never heard someone spend so long saying so little to so many people,” said one delegate.

Meanwhile, BBC director general Mark Thompson unveiled on Saturday plans for a new service to let Web users download its TV and radio programs up to a week after they have aired. Thompson said he hopes MyBBCPlayer could be active by 2006.

Any plan to make the material available for download would have to be approved by the government-owned broadcaster.

It was unclear whether the BBC would charge users a fee for the downloads or how it would protect the digital rights of such programming.

“I accept the premise that if the BBC remains nothing more than a traditional TV and radio broadcaster then we probably won’t deserve or get license-fee funding beyond 2016,” he said. “That is very definitely not our plan.”

As for Birt, the talking shop’s organizers had offered him the Edinburgh gig believing he would speak out in favor of ending the BBC’s exclusive access to the TV license fee and call for part of it to be made available to commercial channels, such as ITV and Channel 4, to help fund their own public service shows. In Britain, this is known as “top-slicing” the license fee.

Birt provided the diagnoses, warning that a looming funding crisis posed an “intensifying threat to the U.K.’s extraordinarily successful tradition of public service broadcasting” — but conspicuously failed to suggest any solutions.

“He wanted to suggest top-slicing, but I suspect it was cut out of his speech the week before,” reckoned Greg Dyke, an ex-colleague of Birt’s who succeeded him as the BBC’s director general and now chairs Hit Entertainment.

In other words, because the idea runs counter to government policy, Birt had balked at the last minute — or had been leaned on by the powers that be.

But there was plenty else to stimulate festivalgoers. The big treat was pure entertainment — a specially staged version of “Strictly Come Dancing” — a big hit for ABC as “Dancing With the Stars” –which had British webheads waltzing their ball gowns and tuxedos to destruction.

The participants left nothing to chance. The TV hoofers had arrived at the Scottish capital a day early for a vigorous rehearsal schedule.

“Celebrity TV Strictly Come Dancing” was won by ex-Talkback TV creative topper Daisy Goodwin. Away from the dance floor, delegates debated the ethics of reality TV and the future of ITV while Peter Fincham, the new controller of BBC1, Blighty’s most successful web, outlined his vision for the pubcaster’s flagship service.

Other highlights of the talking shop were an audience with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, creators of “The Office”; a master class with U.K. screenwriter Stephen Poliakoff; and an interview with documaker Adam Curtis, whose BBC film “The Power of Nightmares” asks searching questions about Western policy in the wake of 9/11.

“Adam Curtis was mesmerizing — a magnetic insight into the creative process, intellectual and emotional,” opined former festival director Charlotte Ashton, now head of channels at U.K. TV. “In all the years I’ve been at Edinburgh, I’ve never been to such an engaging session.”

If only the same could be said of Birt’s MacTaggart. To further dampen the ex-BBC maven’s spirits, Birt uncharacteristically lost his cool at a high-profile festival dinner on Saturday night hosted by the event’s sponsors, the Guardian newspaper.

The normally polite, if somewhat publicly reserved, Birt swore at one of his hosts, the Guardian’s media editor, Matt Wells, in a spat over program quality. “I think John is undergoing a midlife crisis,” said one veteran Birt watcher.

“It was volcanic. John had the good grace to apologize, but by then the damage was done,” added one of the diners who witnessed the incident. “Tessa Jowell (the British media minister) was there and looked on in amazement and apparent glee.”

Birt’s 2005 MacTaggart lecture was his second stab at the talk. The gabfest’s organizers are unlikely to offer him another invitation.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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