Confab becomes fight club

Stressed TV exex face off as they mull an uncertain future

CAMBRIDGE — Is TV on the skids as the combination of smart recorders, Internet and mobile devices deal a death blow to the ancient art of commissioning, scheduling and watching the tube?

This was the question, not exactly new, that 500 or so of Europe’s senior TV players and corporate spear carriers addressed at the biennial Royal Television Society’s Cambridge Convention Sept. 15 to 17.

No one expected a definitive answer: What delegates got was a collective display of nerves and bad temper from an industry facing unprecedented challenges as old business models feel the pinch.

Panelists, including BSkyB CEO James Murdoch, BBC director of TV Jana Bennett and Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson, looked close to blowing their tops as tempers frayed.

The confab opened with a good-natured address from the U.K.’s media secretary, Tessa Jowell, confirming the timetable for digital switchover by 2012.

Twelve hours later as the polite crowd assembled for the convention’s first debate, an outspoken John Pluthero, CEO of U.K. IT provider Energis, signaled that the corporate backslapping needed to make way for some straight talking.

As Yahoo, Google and Microsoft move into the realm of traditional TV companies, Pluthero issued a stark challenge: “You’re about to compete with people who are even bigger and uglier than Sky.

“If you think Sky is your 900-pound gorilla today, wait until you bump into those guys.”

He went on to describe a world of personalized, portable media where consumers pay a dollar here and a dollar there for news updates, entertainment highlights or big sports moments.

“Accept this is going to happen,” he warned. “You can either go with it and reinvent your business to suit, or die on your arse.”

When a 900-pound gorilla emerged from the media jungle to speak to the confab, in the shape of Yahoo chairman-chief operating officer Terry Semel, his interlocutor, Endemol topper Peter Bazalgette, looked puzzled by Semel’s lack of aggression.

Semel, who arguably needs TV rights to raise Yahoo’s game still further, gave little away.

“I’m trying to encourage the broadcast industry to cooperate with Yahoo,” he said. “Think of us as a partner, not a competitor.”

However, many in the aud thought Semel was being disingenuous.

This low-key approach was in sharp contrast to a three-way debate among BSkyB’s Murdoch, ITV’s Charles Allen and BBC director general Mark Thompson.

The stony-faced Murdoch first turned his fire on the British government for giving U.K. auds no choice other than to opt for digital — which, in many cases, would mean viewers obtaining the free digital platform Freeview rather than BSkyB.

Moving on to the vexed question of how much BSkyB paid for exclusive live coverage of Premier League soccer, he clashed with ITV’s Allen, who claimed the satcaster had got the rights on the cheap because of the fees it charges bars and clubs for televising the soccer.

“I know the numbers, I did the deals, and you are dead wrong,” fumed Murdoch.

The blunt speaking, rare in such a cloistered gathering, continued the next day when the talking shop’s final discussion wheeled out that old British broadcasting chestnut — public service TV.

A topic this dry looked set to send the big cheeses home in a relaxed mood, but they hadn’t bargained for C4 chairman Johnson, making his Cambridge debut.

With so many threats to traditional revenue streams, C4 is determined to get a slice of public money, perhaps from the BBC’s license fee.

Johnson was prepared to stick his neck out in a loud argument with the BBC’s Bennett, his fellow panelist.

“I was looking at my license fee bill the other day, and it doesn’t mention the BBC once, because they are deeply embarrassed about it,” Johnson claimed. “It’s a bit embarrassing making your living from a poll tax, isn’t? If they aren’t the broadcasting establishment, who the ‘ef’ is?”

Digital switchover may be seven years from completion, but the digital jitters are here with a vengeance — and they can only get worse.