The rapid onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic caused several media events around the world to take rapid decisions to either cancel and postpone to 2021 or pivot to digital. The U.K., one of the worst hit countries in the world, was no different, and the venerable Edinburgh TV Festival, now in its 45th year, decided on the digital route.
“The question about staging a long-running event like ours moved quite quickly from ‘how can we’ to ‘how should we?’,” festival managing director Campbell Glennie tells Variety. “We are governed by The TV Foundation, an independent, not-for-profit charity, and very much designed for the industry in collaboration with it. When we decided to move to digital, we knew that serving our free-to-access schemes and audiences had to come first, and we’ve all had a challenging year. Being digital makes us more accessible and affordable, and we wanted to make sure we could include as many people as we can in TV who deserve a voice, especially freelancers, for whom the festival is free this year.”
Once the decision to go digital was made, there were some cost advantages, albeit with a proviso. “With some reduced costs also comes reduced income,” says Glennie. “A fair bit of renegotiation was required both as a client and a supplier – and we’re grateful to our partners on both sides of the equation for their understanding, but more importantly their shared belief and excitement in what we wanted to do this year. We were never going to curl up into a ball and hibernate, but we wanted to make sure what we did work towards was valuable, different and impactful. There will be no asterisk next to 2020.”
The biggest advantage of going digital for the festival was the relative ease of matching talent, especially those based outside the U.K. “Having the ability to, for example, link Jameela Jamil or Paul Feig in L.A., with Afua Hirsch and Emilia Clarke in London, enabled us to put those match ups together,” says Glennie. “Equally, being able to feature Netflix and HBO Max execs, or FX’s John Landgraf, on home turf was part of why we have such a great U.S. line-up.”
The summer of 2020 also saw the rebirth of a movement that continues to have seismic implications around the world – Black Lives Matter. This is reflected in the festival’s sheer breadth of diversity in terms of panelists. Prominent host and historian David Olusoga will deliver this year’s MacTaggart Lecture while actor, writer and advocate Jameela Jamil will deliver the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture. Speakers also include GRM Daily founder Posty, multi-hyphenate Noel Clarke, Afro-Mic Productions managing director Emma-Rosa Dias and BBC Three commissioning editor Nasfim Haque.
“Diversity and inclusion was always going to be central to what we do,” festival creative director Stewart Clarke tells Variety. “David Olusoga would be a brilliant MacTaggart speaker in any year, but I think we can also expect the events of 2020 to inform his lecture. The same with Tony Hall, who has the opening keynote and will talk about what’s happening this week, month, and year – as well as taking a long view.”
From a personal festival highlights point of view Clarke is looking forward to hearing what stars of “Sitting in Limbo,” “Gangs of London” and “Normal People” have to say about their respective shows, and to see Grayson Perry as he brings his Art Club to the festival.
Meanwhile, a vaccine may be found and COVID-19 might be eradicated by the time the 2021 festival rolls around, but digital is here to stay.
“Before the pandemic we already had plans for more sustained year-round activity, what we’ve accomplished in 2020 gives us a roadmap for what that will look like next year,” says Glennie. “There will always be a robust digital companion to the festival from now on, because we want to keep the doors we’ve now unlocked open for the future and the conversation to be a continuous one.”
The festival runs Aug. 24-27.