EDINBURGH, Scotland — The future of British television was brought into sharp focus at a confab of Europe’s TV bosses, with pubcaster BBC coming under heavy fire for its determination to compete with its commercial rivals.
Delivering the keynote MacTaggart Lecture at the Guardian Edinburgh Intl. Television Festival, David Liddiment, director of channels at rival private broadcaster ITV, attacked the BBC and warned that “commercial pressures on all of us risk making television a more homogenous, more driven, less interesting place.”
Liddiment maintained that a preoccupation with ratings, the bottom line and a willingness to give a back seat to creativity endangered “the soul of British television.”
“Whether we’re operating in the public or private sector, we’re all commercial now,” he said Friday.
Meanwhile Sunday, the BBC moved to quash speculation Sunday about its plans to sell off non-core businesses. Press reports suggested the BBC intended to privatize BBC Magazines, BBC Books, BBC Music and BBC Learning in the short term, and its Internet site, BBC.co.uk, in the longterm.
A corporation spokesman denied the reports Sunday. However, a recent internal review of the pubcaster’s commercial activities recommended joint ventures, although it nixed the flotation of BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm.
Speaking on Friday, Liddiment said that although “excellent stuff” was being produced by the BBC, there were real risks to quality on the BBC’s flagship service, BBC1.
Network recently dropped Steven Spielberg miniseries “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 (there are) so many other less reassuring signals that these begin to look like fig leaves preserving the decency of a nakedly commercial beast,” he said.
News, current affairs and arts programs have all been sidelined to make room for extended runs of popular series and a surfeit of soap opera.
Call for accountability
Liddiment, whose own net, ITV, has suffered in the wake of an increasingly commercial BBC, laid the blame for the Beeb’s lack of creative leadership squarely with the org’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 on whether the BBC should be granted government permission to launch four digital channels. Liddiment, however, said he agreed in principal that these should be given the go-ahead, provided there was proper accountability.
Meanwhile, John de Mol, chairman of Endemol Entertainment, warned confab auds that the huge trade gap between the American and European TV industries — $5.6 billion — could disappear if Euro producers learn the lessons of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Big Brother.”
De Mol advice
Giving the Worldview address on Sunday, de Mol — whose “Big Brother” format airs in 17 countries — urged European program makers to seize the moment and reverse U.S. dominance of TV entertainment.
American fare accounts for more than 60% of acquired programming in Europe, while the Euro share of the U.S. market until now “has been pathetic by comparison,” explained de Mol.
But thanks to “Millionaire” and “Big Brother,” the trend is beginning to be reversed. “Right now in Europe, we are starting to show substantial creativity and diversity. New channels and new media mean new opportunities to capitalize on our talent,” said de Mol.
The lesson of “Big Brother,” recently a huge hit for U.K. niche net Channel 4 for the second summer running, is that the explosion of channels has made high concept programming more important than ever — and, de Mol maintained, exposed the myth of convergence.
“People talk about digital convergence,” said de Mol. “I don’t accept that all digital media will eventually be unified. One of the lessons of ‘Big Brother’ is that each medium has its strengths and weaknesses and should be exploited for what it does best.
“With so many choices, the industry has to take bigger risks to create the successes of tomorrow.”