Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne used her MacTaggart Lecture at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival to call on television to provide a “vision for change” and to go back to tackling “big ideas.”
Byrne harked back to her early career at Granada Television where producers were “passionate believers in the power of television.”
“They were radical alternative thinkers who believed programmes could be used to make our country a better place. How many people in TV today would say out loud that they wanted to use TV to make Britain a better place?”
She argued that television was losing its ability to question authority both in the wider world and within broadcasters themselves. “Far too many people in TV now spend all day agreeing with their bosses. It’s simply ghastly to witness.”
Byrne said that in a time of seismic change in society, “big ideas” are needed but television is not tackling them. “Too many programmes are saying small or medium-sized things about society. Where do we go for big ideas? Books, Tedtalks, podcasts, all really popular… but where are the programmes which shake all our assumptions about society?”
She said that one way traditional broadcasters can retain young audiences in the face of the increasing popularity of streaming platforms streamers is to tackle big and controversial subjects.
“If we are worried about becoming irrelevant, one of the best things we can do is to start making big controversial programmes about the UK. We are all desperate for young audiences. Millions of young people are now politically aware and active. They’re prepared to spend hours listening to extraordinarily serious podcasts, often authored by some pretty heavy duty thinkers. A great Tedtalk gets millions of views. We have to stop being afraid of serious analysis authored by big brainy people. We have the ability and we have the airtime. Let’s make some really clever and difficult programmes.”