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Edinburgh festival ends on odd note

Guests feel event exaggerates TV's demise

EDINBURGH — Few recent Intl. Television festivals have looked so strong on paper as the one that wrapped Aug. 26.

Potential high spots included Trust Me, I’m in Telly, a session in which web heads confronted the recent scandals involving faked TV quizzes and documentaries; the-self-explanatory Channel 4 on Trial; a masterclass on cult C4 Brit comedy “Peep Show”; and the much-anticipated MacTaggart Lecture from the BBC’s attack dog, Jeremy Paxman.

But did the 2,000-odd delegates — a bit like those hapless contestants in all those rigged U.K. phone quizzes — depart the Scottish capital feeling they’d been somewhat conned?

While some complained that Paxman really lectured and for far too long, others were more taken by this MacTaggart.

Writing in the Guardian British media scribe Maggie Brown hailed the talk as a “fearless corker of a keynote speech.”

Paxman, who presents nightly public affairs strand “Newsnight” in the U.K., not only attacked the hand that fed him by raising fundamental questions about the BBC’s future financing.

He also accused the pubcaster of making unnecessary cuts to news and current affairs programs while at the same time investing in new infrastructure.

But the real point of Paxman’s lecture was to highlight a lack of leadership in British TV as he bemoaned the fact that no one any longer had any idea what television is for anymore other than making money.

“The difficultly is that I see previous little evidence that anyone is grappling with that question,” the cerebral Paxman complained.

“In fact, I don’t see much evidence anyone knows which way is up. Or to put it another way, it’s not that the television industry doesn’t have a compass.

“It’s that too often it doesn’t even seem sure any longer that north exists. There has been a catastrophic, collective loss of nerve.”

Tough talk, but is U.K. television really facing meltdown? From a U.S. perspective, British TV has never been more successful as a couple of festival sessions made clear.

In If I Can Make It There, I’ll Make It Anywhere, three Brits, including presenter Cat Deeley, suggested that provided you’ve got a strong track-record, perseverance and a good lawyer the U.S. market is yours for the taking. Well, sort of.

In the format biz the Brits rule the waves, as delegates were reminded in a panel game, Who Rules the World, that injected some much-needed fun to all the soul searching.

The session on trust was a damp squib, mainly because the protagonists were prevented from saying anything meaty with various inquiries into the dodgy documentaries and phone line scams expected to report in the fall.

However there were encouraging signs that British web heads were determined to put “the rainy summer of self-loathing,” as Discovery topper Jane Root put it, behind them.

Channel 4 program chief, Kevin Lygo, gave arguably the most serious speech of his career as he sounded might well be the death knell for a profusion of reality shows on his station.

“Celebrity Big Brother,” the subject of a seminal January row over allegations of racism that exposed shortcomings in the broadcaster’s top brass, will not run in 2008, Lygo announced, and other tired shows are being dumped to make way for a so-called “creative renewal” at the ailing broadcaster.

Peter Fincham, the BBC boss at the center of the spate over the faked footage Queen docu, also seemed to be suggesting that reality’s days as a schedule driver may be numbered.

Yet, perhaps, the real star of this gabfest was the sixtysomething Vint Cerf, self-styled chief Internet evangelist for Google and one of the Internet’s founding fathers.

Immaculately attired in crisply pressed suit and matching red tie, the courteous and witty Alternative MacTaggart lecturer Cerf looked like an anachronism among the dressed-down festival crowd.

Ironically, he is, of course, at the cutting edge of digital media while his younger, more fashionably attired fellow speakers are all grappling to make sense of the digital world, as Paxman acknowledged.

In a speech that encompassed such arcane matters as bit rates and switching systems — and outlined his ambitions for an inter-planetary Internet — Cerf outlined the death of linear TV as most of us still know it.

“Eighty-five percent of all video we watch is pre-recorded, so you can set your system to download it all the time,” he said.

“You’re still going to need live television for certain things — like news, sporting events and emergencies — but increasingly it is going to be like the iPod where you download content to look at later.”

Ultimately, the man from Google had some cheering news for the Edinburgh crowd.

Are there more opportunities than risks for traditional TV in the age of the Internet, Cerf was asked?

His “Yes” answer was, arguably, the best news this self-flagellating festival had heard all weekend.

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