Chair of this year’s Cambridge Convention and ceo of Channel 4 Alex Mahon, opened this year’s Cambridge Convention by addressing the recent Russell Brand allegations, made public last week in a joint investigation by The Times of London, The Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches. She described the allegations as “horrendous,” “disgusting” and “saddening.” She pledged a thorough investigation at Channel 4.

BBC director general Tim Davie echoed her worries in his interview later in the morning and the need to address the culture that can allow such behaviour to go unresolved for years. He also called for anyone with relevant information to bring it to the BBC and to other industry leaders to raise their game. “The people in this room can make this happen, we’ve all got to be committed to change.”

Mahon chaired the first session which used recent research by Channel 4 looking at how audiences feel about the content they consume and what benefits they feel that they can get from TV, underpinned with BARB data.

With people in the UK currently watching around five hours of video a day, the research reported consumers feeling anxious about video overload. The panel looked in more depth at why and how this was specifically with certain types of content.

The research homed in on short-form social media consumption causing a lack of control . While they choose to look at content, the algorithm decides what content. “People say they feel emotionally out of control,” said Mahon, “the immediate dopamine hit fades rapidly and they are left feeling empty. They report a sense that their lives have been encroached upon.”

For the traditional public service broadcasters this gives approbation. Mahon says “this is evidence that conscious, human, editorial curation of long form video, gives a positive advantage to our industry.”

The Channel 4 research also showed the top 40 shows by all adults in the UK – all from PSBs, except Clarkson’s Farm. Look again, at the top 40 for 16-34s, there are 14 streamer shows. The challenge has to be to find the audience on different platforms.

BBC director general Tim Davie was the subject of a keynote. He reflected on the recent announcement of Freely,  the new free TV service being developed by Britain’s public service broadcasters that will deliver live TV over broadband.

Turning his attention to the need for the BBC to make the most of commercial opportunities, he celebrated BBC Studios’ ambition to double sales to £4bn. “We need to grow commercially,” he said, indicating that the strategy  of acquiring independent production companies would continue.

The convention heard from celebrated media ‘cartographer’ Evan Shapiro, who warned that the industry needs younger people at the top to represent consumers. “You don’t have to be 50 to have a good idea,” he said. Claire Enders of Enders Analysis, also on the panel, defended the UK media industry, saying, “we have an incredibly diverse leadership.”

In an afternoon session on Sports media, Andre Georgiou, president and md, Warner Bros Discovery UK & Ireland and Warner Bros Discovery Sports Europe described structural headwinds that could subdue the escalating cost of sports rights. “We’ve seen across Europe it’s correcting itself,” he said. “It does feel like we’re at the top of the cycle.” He was also concerned about the trend for rights holders to look at creating more content. And warned of “a clash between what a rights holder thinks and the reality of the market.”

On the panel Dawn Airey, chair of FA Women’s Super League & Women’s Championship Football, The Football Association pointed to the “massive opportunity” that women’s football represents. With women currently commanding a tiny fraction of the value of the football rights scene. “It has the potential to be one of the biggest sports globally,” said Airey.

Talking about growing engagement, Stephen van Rooyen, the ceo, Sky UK & Ireland and Group chief commercial officer acknowledged that women’s sport could help to grow viewer engagement with sport more generally. “It’s good business sense in one dimension,” he said, adding that as sports broadcasters they should be investing.

The panelists agreed that audiences do expect to get closer to sport, to get a more intimate experience. They want to get closer to the players.

Georgiou, from Warner Bros Discovery, talked about how this will be driven by the gradual move from linear viewing to digital. “The engagement opportunity that digital provides is significant,” he said.

The day finished with an address from Lucy Frazer, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Well received by the audience, who largely felt that she showed genuine interest with and for the industry – after just seven months in office. She opened with a eulogy for British TV and then injected a more realistic note.

“Despite all this excellence, it would be foolish to ignore the enormous challenges that you all face in remaining competitive.

“I know that the ongoing strikes in the US are having a significant impact on many working in the industry in the UK. The government is committed to our film and high-end TV sector, and we want to ensure that it’s in the best possible position to bounce back once the US strikes are resolved.”

She referred to the government’s Sector Vision, published in June, which includes growing the creative industries by £50bn, create a million more jobs and a pipeline of talent, by 2030.

She cited funding for collaborations such as the NFTS, Royal Holloway University of London and and Pinewood for the development of green screens. And she welcomed the major expansion of studio space in the UK.

She also talked about the Media Bill. Referencing the extended content regulation for video on demand services, she said: “when you are watching TV, the same rules that apply to a new Channel 4 series or a new Sky documentary should be the ones applied across the board.”

She announced the launch of a new programme of work on the Future of TV distribution – a six-month research project looking at changing viewing habits and technologies.

Addressing AI, she also announced upcoming round tables: “While it’s clear that AI is a rapidly developing technology, I want to assure you all that one of my priorities is to make sure we protect and maintain the integrity of our high quality news output.

“In the coming weeks, we’ll be growing that evidence base with a number of roundtables on AI to discuss what it means for our media and for our creative industries.”

The day closed, as it opened, with the Secretary of State touching on the emerging stories about Russell Brand. “It is incumbent on all of us to make sure that this industry is synonymous with talent, opportunity and inclusivity – not the scandals of MeToo,” said Frazer. “TV studios, production facilities and offices need to be places where people feel safe. Places where working cultures are responsible and accountable, and do not allow for possible abuses of power. Places where everyone feels able to speak up, no matter how junior, and where leaders never turn a blind eye.

“I would urge all of you, as leaders in your industry, to look hard at the cultures and processes in your own organisations and lead change, if change is needed.”

See a full transcript of the speech here.

Pippa Considine

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