Record numbers attend Edinburgh event

The Brits may have been upstaged by an unlikely double act of Al Gore and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but the 31st Edinburgh Television Festival was dominated by a gigantic spat between rival U.K. webs ITV and Channel 4.

Record numbers — organizers claimed 2,000 delegates, 25% up on last year — trekked to the annual three-day British gabfest, whose eclectic subject matter is sometimes matched by the inconsistent quality of debate.

This year’s sessions ranged from a morning devoted to examining new media, the inevitable discussion on the future of the BBC, an interview with natural history guru David Attenborough and curiously titled talk “I’d Rather Have a Wank,” looking at why people under 35 prefer Web porn to TV.

Festgoers gave Gore, one of the final speakers, a standing ovation as the event wrapped Sunday.

The former White House No. 2-turned-TV entrepreneur used his platform to provide an erudite plug for his user-generated Current TV, stressing the need for media plurality as a corner stone of democracy.

Speaking immediately after a hilarious and expletive-laden master class by the “South Park” bad boys, Gore offered a statesman-like address that coupled folksy anecdotes with a potted history of Western civilization that went down well with the Edinburgh audience.

“Everybody hates George Bush in the U.K., so although Al Gore is a suit, he couldn’t put a foot wrong,” said one member of the packed house.

The keynote MacTaggart lecturer, outgoing ITV topper Charles Allen, was another surprise hit at an event that usually responds coolly to industry suits given Edinburgh’s roots as a program maker’s forum.

By common consent, Allen’s MacTaggart, a clever and witty attack on competitor Channel 4, was the best in at least five years.

“Had Charles given that speech three years ago, he wouldn’t have been kicked out of running ITV,” quipped outgoing festival executive chair Dawn Airey, whose day job is BSkyB managing director of channels and services and who is on the shortlist to succeed Allen.

Allen’s incendiary comments on Channel 4, which he derided for dumbing down and relying on a schedule dominated by “reality, lifestyle, U.S. acquisitions and shock docs,” infuriated C4 execs so much that chairman Luke Johnson and director of television Kevin Lygo boycotted a festival dinner held to honor the MacTaggart speaker.

But while most fest folks agreed that Allen had made a good speech, the overwhelming view at Edinburgh was that it was simply incorrect to blame ITV’s woes — ITV1 recorded its lowest ever ratings in July — on Channel 4.

To ram home the message, Channel 4 was voted terrestrial channel of the year at the gabfest.

“No one here believes that ITV is in trouble because Channel 4 is doing so well,” Discovery topper Jane Root said. “The real problem is that ITV has not invested enough in its future strategy and that ITV1 does not have enough great programs.”

She added that an out-of-sorts ITV1, Blighty’s biggest commercial terrestrial web, was bad for the U.K. TV industry as a whole.

“One of the biggest problems the BBC has at the moment is that ITV is so weak,” Root opined.

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