The Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival 2011

Every year, they key players in the British broadcasting industry gather in Scotland, for the Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. The event, now in its 36th year, comprises a weekend of seminars, screenings and parties, that this year included appearances by all of the major channel controllers, Dr. Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, Glenn Brown, Director of Business Development at Twitter, a handful of TV comedians…and Ricky Gervais… 

Vernon Kay opened the festival with a special live version of ‘Family Fortunes’ (the long running gameshow he presents on ITV) that featured teams from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, BBC, while elsewhere, BBC Four controller, Richard Klein, kicked off a series of ‘Meet the Controller’ sessions.

In response to recent speculation and a direct question about the BBC’s forthcoming ‘DQF’ (Delivering Quality First…aka cuts) Klein stated categorically “BBC Four will not be axed…as far as I am aware.” Describing BBC2 as a “mainstream broad channel,” and BBC4 as a “mainstream niche channel,” that are “attitudinally different,” Klein said “there is room for both…they are distinctive [it] isn’t possible to merge them.”

Although he conceded “there’s a consequence to a 20% cut,” he also stated “as and when the DFQ announcements are made…the channel, as far as I’m concerned, will stay true to its ideals…opinion, perspective, having something to say, being a channel which actually appeals to people who like to think, for whom thinking and engaging in discourse is entertaining… hopefully with a bit of wit and entertainment if I can manage it.”

Asked “has Sky Arts nicked some of the Jewels in your crown?” he replied with a curt no, suggesting that whilst BBC Four spends most of its money on programming and very little on marketing, it is the other way round for Sky Arts. However, this comment was contradicted, 24 hours later, by James Hunt, Controller Sky Arts, who, during his session, stated that, unlike the other Sky channels, Sky Arts spends 95% of its budget on programming and just 5% on marketing.

The pair also disagreed about whether or not live theatre works on television. Klein said it does not. Hunt said it does, explaining that Sky has learned lots from their initial attempts to make it work. One thing both controllers had in common though, was the view that their channels have no specific demographic.

In terms of what each is seeking, Klein is keen on seasons, which, he said, he comes up with in the bath…unlike BBC Two Controller, Janice Hadlow, who during her session, said that one of her worst moments was being pitched to whilst standing naked in the showers at Highbury Baths. Although the pitch wasn’t by Klein, this does, perhaps, offer some insight into why a merger between BBC Two and BBC Four is impossible.

Echoing what had been said at the recent Sheffield Documentary Festival, Klein stated that compelling onscreen talent is one of the best ways for an indie to get a factual commission and that in this regard there will always be room for a good taster tape. However, a presenter must have authorship and their view must be credible e.g. “Stephen Fry on Wagner.” Klein summed up what he is looking for as “…mainstream but something which tells you something about the subject you didn’t know that you don’t necessarily agree with.”

James Hunt was less specific about what he wants. Pointing out that this year Sky Arts had its budget trebled, is commissioning 250 hours of programming and enjoys the full support of the Murdochs, he left the door open to indies to pitch whatever they feel is right for the channel, stating “My ambition is to make Sky Arts the leading arts brand in the UK, online and offline.”

Forthcoming productions to look out for include (on BBC Four) ‘Holy Flying Circus’ – the story of Monty Python’s Life of Brian; ‘We’ll Take Manhattan’ – the story of how David Bailey & Jean Shrimpton revolutionised fashion photography in New York; Douglas Adams’ ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’ and (on Sky Arts) Harry Shearer as President Nixon.

‘Chasing The Convergence Cash’, which followed Klein’s session, featured David Abraham, Chief Executive, Channel Four, Fru Hazlitt, Managing Director of Commercial and Online, ITV, Christian Hernandez, Head of International Business Development, Facebook and Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications & Creative Industries. Whether it was surprisingly empty because the television industry has little interest in convergence, because delegates somehow knew it would be a soporific that failed to offer producers any insight into how to get a piece of the alleged convergence pie, or simply because they preferred to attend the session with ITV controller, Peter Fincham, is unclear. What is clear is that watching Ed Vaizey going ‘off message’ with an anti internet regulation stance that files in the facebook of David Cameron’s recent comments about switching off the net, was not nearly as much fun as seeing Ray Snoddy make Peter Fincham squirm over pre rush hour car crash ‘Daybreak’ and his decision to turn down ‘The Road to Coronation Street’, a drama about the creation of ITV’s iconic soap, that was a hit for…The BBC…

Proclaiming that ITV is “not in the cult or niche business,” Fincham said “there’s big audiences for intelligent and interesting programmes…you can very easily underestimate the taste of the general public”…which fails to explain ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ & ‘The X Factor’… However, Fincham’s most salient point was that people are buying bigger TVs, which have to be filled with bigger programming…which still fails to explain ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and ‘The X Factor’…

Next came a choice between a session with Peter Richardson…one of the UK’s most important comedy writers/directors/producers…and a session with Jon Thoday…one of The UK’s most important comedy agents/managers/producers… Perhaps someone should have explained to the festival programmers that they were not scheduling rival television channels… and that programming these two against each made about as much sense as…oh, I don’t know…putting on clashing sessions the next day with Glenn Brown from Twitter…and Dr Eric Schmidt from Google…

Peter Richardson and his producer, Nick Smith, discussed (with Newsnight Presenter, Kirsty Wark) the iconic ‘Comic Strip Presents’, from its debut, on the opening night of Channel Four, to its latest progeny, ‘The Hunt For Tony Blair’, which airs this November. Set in a mid 20th century monochrome world, in which Blair is a war criminal on the run from the law, it stars Stephen Mangan as the former Prime Minister and was shot with an Arri Alexa.

Stephen Mangan may be its star, but Nigel Planer steals the show with a chillingly accurate portrayal of Peter Mandelson. After the session, Nick Smith told me that during post production, Planer had to do some ADR. When he finished recording his dialogue, the studio engineer informed him that his impersonation of Mandy was “uncanny.” Asked how he knew this, the engineer explained that he had recently finished recording an audio book…with Lord Mandelson!

The good news for Comic Strip fans is that more shows are being planned, the next one of which may very well be ‘Five Go to Rehab’…so start ordering in the ginger beers.

During the last seminar of the day, Janice Hadlow stated “our prime directive is not to chase ratings…BBC2’s task is to reflect the nation we are.” Despite admitting to being “obsessed” by historical fiction and having a love for costume drama, she said that BBC2 is “overwhelmingly still a factual channel [that will always be] hungry for factual [content].” Nevertheless, she is “looking at new comedy,” and has been “interested in live TV for a long time.” An example of this she cited was ‘Lambing Live’, a show about a sheep giving birth in the Welsh mountains. I refrained from asking if she’d be interested in a show about Toadlickers giving birth in the Welsh mountains…

Then it was over to The Festival Theatre, to hear Dr Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google, deliver the first MacTaggart lecture, to be given by someone not directly involved in television or film. Schmidt’s lecture had two main themes, the lack of a rounded education system in the UK and over regulation. Bemoaning what he sees as a slide away from the arts, sciences and engineering towards the humanities, that has resulted in everyone becoming either a “Luvvie” or a “Boffin,” he bigged up the Victorians for producing polymaths who wrote poetry whilst building bridges. Of course the Victorians didn’t just produce polymaths, they also produced monolithic expansionist institutions that conquered the world through fear, repression and exploitation…but I’m sure the head of Google didn’t have this in mind when suggesting a return to Victorian values…

The evening concluded with a party at The Royal Museum of Scotland…and the requisite after party shmoozefest at The George Hotel.

The next morning, despite stiff competition from a live satellite interview with RTS Journalist of the year, Alex Crawford, a seminar with Sitcom star, Miranda Hart and hangovers from the night before, there was a packed audience for Sky Controller, Stuart Murphy.

Stuart Murphy explained that when Sky reached 10 million subscribers the business subtly shifted its emphasis from numbers, to viewers valuing content. As a result, this year, Sky will spend £320 million on commissioning original British content (not including rights or sports rights) and by 2014 its annual spend will increase to £600 million.

In response to research suggesting that “if you originate comedy, British comedy fans will absolutely love you,” the channel is actively seeking to commission new comedy. This year it will spend more on comedy than Channel 4. By next year it will spend more on comedy than The BBC. By 2014 its comedy spend will outstrip all terrestrial channels combined. Initially it is seeking shows about “Warm, loving, redemptive, slightly dysfunctional families who talk in a very modern way,” for Sky One, which Murphy described as a broad channel for broad audiences who expect shows as broad as BBC One & ITV One. Subsequently Sky will explore other comedic tones including “dark” comedy and “silly” Zucker Brothers style comedies.

Discussing drama, Murphy said Sky Atlantic requires shows that are “on a huge scale… cinematic…like the best HBO shows…on the surface they say one thing but fundamentally they’re talking about something bigger.” Referencing HBO’s mantra of “passionate engagement,” he added that whilst these shows do not need to appeal to everyone, those who watch them must love them.

Other ideas that could be of interest include a live multi-platform studio entertainment show with the interactivity of Million Pound Drop, or the physicality of The Cube and an Apprentice/MasterChef style show that features real people competing for something tangible.

During the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture that followed, Professor Brian Cox called Post modernism “utter shit,” slated The X Factor and proclaimed “The reason we’re not living in caves is because of science.” Really? I thought it was because during the Edinburgh Festival, you can’t find a cave to rent…

Simultaneously, Jay Hunt, Chief Creative Officer, Channel Four, dropped the bombshell that had Big Brother still been on the channel, she wouldn’t have taken the job. Explaining that she wants “creative renewal in all slots,” and that “it’s not an arms war, ratings don’t come first,” Hunt left delegates with the impression that she is looking for everything, in all genres, at all price points.

Whilst Jay Hunt was pleased to see the back of Big Brother on Four, Jeff Ford, Controller, Channel Five, was pleased to see Big Brother back, on Five. In fact he made it clear that it is a central part Five’s strategy for attracting more 16-34s and ABC1s. Pointing out that there are lots of slots to fill during the 28 weeks that Big Brother is not on air, he said he wants returnable formats, factual that is “more interesting [than their current offerings],” genre mashups e.g. “wildlife & engineering” and events. Comedy however, is “further away”…as it always has been on Five… Asked about his commissioning budget, he responded that it is “whatever Richard [Desmond] wants it to be,” which he expanded upon by explaining that Desmond is willing to put in whatever it takes to get the channel to where he wants it to be.

Next came ‘The Only Way is… Twitter?’ panel, upon which Glenn Brown was supposed to appear, but, for some inexplicable reason, did not. Instead, delegates were given Dynamo, Graham Linehan, Andy Carvin and Matt Locke. Despite being advertised as an opportunity for broadcasters and producers to learn how to build their brand and audience, it turned out to be something of a Twitter 101, summed up by one wag as “The least tweetable session of the Festival.” Still, it was worth staying to the end to see magician Dynamo perform a spectacular trick that demonstrated why he should be in primetime.

Less spectacular, was the revelation, during ‘The Only Way Is Essex Masterclass’, that Claire Zolkwer, Commissioning Editor Comedy & Entertainment, ITV, came up with the title for the show, flicking through her iPod and happening on Yazz & The Plastic Population’s ‘The Only Way is Up’. I’ve yet to figure out how to break the news to my friend Matt Black…

The day concluded with the Arqiva Channel of The Year Awards, a party at the George Hotel…and the requisite after party shmoozefest at the George Hotel.

For those who had gone to bed early…or not gone to bed at all, Sunday Morning opened with a Question Time session during which, in response to a question about the DFQ cuts at the BBC, Stuart Cosgrove suggested that what the BBC should cut is acronyms.

This was followed by a session about the 2012 olympics, which I didn’t attend, as I already know what to expect…a major terrorist incident, looting and no golds for Great Britain.

The final session of the day, a comedic look at the festival with Jeremy Vine, Miranda Hart, Sarah Hadland and Ash Atalla, concluded at 1.30pm, enabling delegates to catch a flight back to their Tuscan villas in time for Bank Holiday Monday.

Although many people will remember this year’s festival as being about luvvies and boffins, I think it was about something far more important…talent! Despite saying the BBC needs a “mix of big big talent who really just want to be on the BBC and are proud to be working for the BBC,” Danny Cohen, Controller BBC1 also said “we’re not going to pay maybe what we used to in the past.” John Thoday made it clear that because of a potentially limited window of opportunity talent needs to seek financially lucrative possibilities. Stuart Murphy said that established talent is important to Sky and that he intends to pursue it. If this means we are about to see a seismic shift in British broadcasting that results in talent finally getting paid what it deserves, TV, you know where to find me…

© 2011, Paul D. All rights reserved.

Author: Paul D

Paul D is a multi award winning director & producer who makes music videos, documentaries & feature films. His recent 'Toadlickers' promo for multi Grammy nominated artist, Thomas Dolby, won Gold in the W3 Awards, Gold in The Davey Awards, was nominated for 2 Webby Awards, reached #18 in YouTube's 'Most Watched' Chart and was broadcast on The BBC.