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Ratings rush leading to Brit TV ruin

ITV exec blames BBC for creative step back

EDINBURGH — The soul of British television is in danger — and the main reason is the BBC’s determination to compete head on with its commercial rivals.

Delivering the keynote MacTaggart Lecture at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival Friday, ITV’s director of channels David Liddiment launched a far-reaching attack on the BBC and warned that “commercial pressures on all of us risk making television a more homogenous, more driven, less interesting place.”

The preoccupation with ratings, the bottom line and a willingness to give a back seat to creativity was endangering ” the soul of British television.”

“Numbers now seem to be the only universal measure for excellence we have: how many, how much, how often,” he said.

“Whether we’re operating in the public or private sector, we’re all commercial now.”

Turning to the BBC, Liddiment said that although “excellent stuff” is still being produced, there are real risks to quality on the BBC’s flagship service, BBC1.

It was this network that recently dropped Steven Spielberg’s series “Band of Brothers” because execs did not think it would generate high enough ratings.

“There’s still the sprinkling of ambitious landmark programs, certainly, and more promised. But so many other less reassuring signals that these begin to look like figleaves preserving the decency of a nakedly commercial beast ,” he said.

News, current affairs and arts programs had all been side-lined to make room for extended runs of popular series and a surfeit of soap opera.

Liddiment, whose own main network, ITV, has suffered in the wake of an increasingly commercial BBC, laid the blame for the pubcaster’s lack of creative leadership squarely with the organization’s governors. He called for a new way of regulating and managing the BBC that was “genuinely accountable.”

The attack on the BBC was widely expected but Liddiment’s concern regarding the creative shortcomings of the British TV industry as a whole was surprisingly candid and objective.

It may well influence the debate about whether or not the BBC should be granted government permission to launch four digital channels. However, Liddiment said he agreed in principal that these should be given the go-ahead provided there was proper accountability.

Commercial pressures were compromising publicly funded broadcasters, and they must stay away from the rights business.

“They should not exploit their market power to exhaust the commercial capital of those who’ve created the ideas. It’s not fair, and it’s dangerous short-termism,” Liddiment said.

Speaking generally about the crisis of creativity in British television, Liddiment said that maverick talent should be encouraged, programme-makers should not have to be sales people and that creeping centralisation threatened diversity.

Since the MacTaggart lecture was inaugurated more than twenty years ago it has frequently been used as an informal job application.

Although Liddiment has denied he is interested in running Britain’s Channel 4 in the wake of Michael Jackson’s departure for a top job at USA Networks in the U.S., his chances of landing the job will have been done no harm by his Edinburgh speech — and by attempting to put creativity back on the agenda.

Delivering the keynote MacTaggart Lecture at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival Friday, ITV’s director of channels David Liddiment launched a far-reaching attack on the BBC and warned that “commercial pressures on all of us risk making television a more homogenous, more driven, less interesting place.”

The preoccupation with ratings, the bottom line and a willingness to give a back seat to creativity was endangering ” the soul of British television.”

“Numbers now seem to be the only universal measure for excellence we have: how many, how much, how often,” he said.

“Whether we’re operating in the public or private sector, we’re all commercial now.”

Turning to the BBC, Liddiment said that although “excellent stuff” is still being produced, there are real risks to quality on the BBC’s flagship service, BBC1.

It was this network that recently dropped Steven Spielberg’s series “Band of Brothers” because execs did not think it would generate high enough ratings.

“There’s still the sprinkling of ambitious landmark programs, certainly, and more promised. But so many other less reassuring signals that these begin to look like figleaves preserving the decency of a nakedly commercial beast ,” he said.

News, current affairs and arts programs had all been side-lined to make room for extended runs of popular series and a surfeit of soap opera.

Liddiment, whose own main network, ITV, has suffered in the wake of an increasingly commercial BBC, laid the blame for the pubcaster’s lack of creative leadership squarely with the organization’s governors. He called for a new way of regulating and managing the BBC that was “genuinely accountable.”

The attack on the BBC was widely expected but Liddiment’s concern regarding the creative shortcomings of the British TV industry as a whole was surprisingly candid and objective.

It may well influence the debate about whether or not the BBC should be granted government permission to launch four digital channels. However, Liddiment said he agreed in principal that these should be given the go-ahead provided there was proper accountability.

Commercial pressures were compromising publicly funded broadcasters, and they must stay away from the rights business.

“They should not exploit their market power to exhaust the commercial capital of those who’ve created the ideas. It’s not fair, and it’s dangerous short-termism,” Liddiment said.

Speaking generally about the crisis of creativity in British television, Liddiment said that maverick talent should be encouraged, programme-makers should not have to be sales people and that creeping centralisation threatened diversity.

Since the MacTaggart lecture was inaugurated more than twenty years ago it has frequently been used as an informal job application.

Although Liddiment has denied he is interested in running Britain’s Channel 4 in the wake of Michael Jackson’s departure for a top job at USA Networks in the U.S., his chances of landing the job will have been done no harm by his Edinburgh speech — and by attempting to put creativity back on the agenda.

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