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Furor puts joyful TV festival on edge

Big issues dominate Edinburgh agenda

LONDON — Tension has permeated TV in the U.K. throughout 2007. The tumult over the alleged racist treatment of Shilpa Shetty on Channel 4’s “Celebrity Big Brother” was soon followed by further attacks on the hybrid pubcaster for airing a documentary that showed images of a dying Princess Diana as well as renewed speculation that new Prime Minister Gordon Brown was considering selling the channel following claims alleging a lack of editorial direction.

Fellow pubcaster BBC fared little better with the revelation of widespread discrepancies in the net’s phone-in competitions and the ensuing furor over a documentary teaser about the queen that was exposed as having been edited fraudulently.

It’s fitting, therefore, that this year’s Edinburgh Intl. TV Fest, traditionally a jolly affair for U.K. TV execs, has a harder news agenda than previous editions in its lineup of seminars and keynote speeches.

Leading the direction of this year’s fest is Peter Barron, editor of leading U.K. public affairs show “Newsnight.” As fest advisory chair, Barron has been responsible for shaping the fest’s themes and core issues.

“It’s fair to say it’s not been a quiet year,” Barron notes wryly. “It’s been a year full of controversy and event. We’ve tried to reflect that (in the festival program), whether it’s racism on television, the whole phone-in row, the role of Channel 4 or the BBC’s crisis of confidence.”

Among the highlights of this year’s fest are the annual MacTaggart Lecture to be delivered by “Newsnight” presenter (and longtime Barron collaborator) Jeremy Paxman, who will be looking at the recurring theme of decreasing audience trust in TV, as well as Joost founder Janus Friis delivering the Futureview keynote on the role of new media and new technologies.

The responsibility of editors when faced with tapes featuring acts of terrorism, as well as the relationship between television and violence in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, also will be the subject of a major session.

“There’s always a period in the industry, just as in the last few weeks, where there is a sense of panic,” says fest director Amy Brown. “Edinburgh provides a good opportunity for a bit of reflection in a calmer environment and a space for the industry to come together and have calm discussions about what’s happened in the past and how to move forward away from mass frenzy.

“Peter’s had a huge influence. He’s got completely infectious enthusiasm and bundles of energy.”

Of course, this being Edinburgh, there’s still plenty of scope for fun and entertainment. Special live editions of “Jim’ll Fix It,” “University Challenge” and “Top Gear” are set to see delegates have their funny bones — as well as their consciences — tickled.

“Entertainment is a huge part of the festival, and it gives executives the chance to laugh at themselves, socialize, network and chew the fat about the big issues that face us,” Barron says.

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