Channel 4 and Future of U.K. Public Service Broadcasting to be Debated at Digital Edinburgh TV Festival (EXCLUSIVE)

Campbell Glennie Stewart Clarke
Edinburgh TV Festival

A range of topics dominating television industry headlines in the U.K. will be front and center at the 2021 Edinburgh TV Festival (Aug. 23-26), the event’s chiefs promise.

The proposed privatization of Channel 4 and global streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus stealing a march over U.K. public service broadcasters have dominated local headlines in recent months — all of which will be unpacked at the fully virtual event.

“Channel 4, and of course, the future of public service broadcasting and the streamers and their place in the fabric of U.K. production and TV, these are all things that will absolutely be talked about,” said festival creative director Stewart Clarke, a former Variety correspondent.

Like the 2020 edition, 2021 is packed with heavyweight speakers including Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Coogan, and climate activist Greta Thunberg who will be in conversation with bestselling author Jo Nesbo.

“It really was a long-term goal to get Greta Thunberg and get her to talk about what the responsibility is of the TV world of storytelling, for storytellers, and more than that, to frame things in a positive way in terms of how positive change can be effected, and what was great was to be able to pair her up with Jo Nesbo, the author who has spoken about this before. That’s an amazing matchup,” Clarke said.

In addition, other top executives set to speak include NBCUniversal television and streaming entertainment content chair Susan Rovner; Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios and her colleagues Georgia Brown, who also serves as the festival’s advisory chair, and Dan Grabiner; Netflix’s Anne Mensah; Fiona Lamptey; Alexi Wheeler and more, as well as a galaxy of decision makers from the BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Channel 5, Sky and Disney.

“I think what we have managed to achieve now is have almost the complete contemporary set of players in the U.K. and in addition to that, we’ve got amazing people from Netflix, Amazon and Disney Plus and then some commissioners as well,” said Clarke. “That just very much reflects the way that the TV world has changed; we’ve been able to move with the times, but without losing those relationships with those incumbents, if you like.”

The MacTaggart and Alternative MacTaggart lectures, this year delivered by Jack Thorne and London Hughes, respectively, are highlights of the festival. Last year’s MacTaggart, by historian, broadcaster and writer David Olusoga called for a structural change in the U.K. television industry to bring about inclusiveness. Stewart says that, as a festival, Edinburgh does not forget calls to action and move on, but instead ensures that the conversation continues with industry leaders.

Meanwhile, despite the U.K. having reopened, the festival will be fully online this year, partly because in May, when the decision had to be made, the status of in-person events weren’t clear alongside an uncertain insurance scenario.

“I think, for us, there’s still a significant risk of having an indoor event with 2,000 people, and so I think it’s the right choice to make,” festival MD Campbell Glennie told Variety. “It’s allowed us fantastic access to speakers who I think may not have been in a position to come and do something in person in Edinburgh for a variety of reasons.”

“So what we’ve done really is just kind of scale up the possibilities of what we can do digitally,” Glennie adds. “And I think if you compare it to last year, what’s really exciting about this year is being able to get people in the same room a lot more.”

More than two-thirds of the program will be live, with Zoom not featuring as prominently, say the festival chiefs. Glennie notes that the 2020 digital edition, delivered in partnership with Little Dot Studios, felt like running a live TV channel and this year, with the same partner alongside Verizon Media, will be even more so this year. Glennie predicts a “live feeling where people will be able to interact and see that news as it breaks.”

If COVID-19 cooperates, Glennie is confident that the festival will be back at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in 2022 as a physical event. The U.K. government’s recently announced $1 billion insurance lifeline for live events will go a long way towards making this happen.

“We’ll await further details of that with great interest, but for us, that’s a massive move forward, in terms of being able to visualize next year, because that gives us the confidence to plan ahead at scale,” says Glennie.

“Once we’re back, and we’re physical, we want it to feel both exactly like the kind of the Edinburgh that everybody loves and misses, and we miss too, but also that we’re able to come back with something new and exciting.”

The festival’s headline sponsors are Screen Scotland and YouTube.