A hard hitting and sweeping MacTaggart lecture from Channel 4’s head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne provided the anchor point for this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival.
Byrne took aim “sexist bastards” in the TV, lamented an industry-wide lack of progress in diversity, hit out at politicians for failing to hold themselves up to scrutiny in TV interviews, and spoke of the he urgent need for broadcasters to make “clever and difficult” programmes to attract elusive younger viewers.
Byrne, who admitted she was not the festival’s first choice as a MacTaggart speaker, proved to be an inspired late stand-in. Her speech earned a lengthy standing ovation, and was a talking point for many delegates long after it ended – not least because she said that one of her MacTaggart predecessors “has not yet had the comeuppance he deserves for his assaults on women”, leaving many to speculate on his identity.
As Brexit and the autumn party conference season approaches, her attacks on politicians for eschewing TV interviews were also pertinent, with Byrne saying that the decline has become “critical for our democracy.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hasn’t held one major press conference or given a major television interview since he came to power in July, said Byrne. She added that the leader of the opposition Labour Party in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, similarly fails to give significant interviews on terrestrial TV.
Elsewhere, many of the sessions addressed the rise of the SVODs and how best traditional broadcasters should react.
Many broadcast bosses said they were doubling down on British content that has a strong sense of place and specificity.
Channel 4’s director of programmes Ian Katz, for example, said the broadcaster is looking all over the UK “for stories that are profoundly locally resonant but that have a universality that grips us all”, citing its hit comedy “Derry Girls” from Northern Ireland and playing up C4’s decision to open a national HQ outside of London, in Leeds.
He also said the broadcaster had learned a good lesson from the failure last year of its big budget Hulu co-production “The First”, about a mission to Mars starring Sean Penn, to resonate with UK audiences, describing it as “unrelatable” to a British audience.
“It was possibly born of a moment where lots of British broadcasters were thinking that the way we can compete in this very challenging drama market is to co-produce with big American broadcasters and streamers. That was probably an example of a show where that desire to produce something really glossy got in way of thinking about what really connected with a British audience.”
Sky’s director of content Zai Bennett, meanwhile, said that “specificity” is really important. “By being really specific, you can make a show that is incredibly local and successful for the UK but that will also travel.”
Speaking at Edinburgh, BBC director of content Charlotte Moore said the BBC was committed to telling British stories and commissioning for British audiences, and also supporting new talent, as part of its way to stand out at time of growing competition from streaming companies.
Moore also flagged the importance of Ofcom’s recent decision to allow the BBC to air shows on its catch-up service, BBC iPlayer, for 12 months after first broadcast, saying the previous 30-day window “wasn’t fit for purpose.”
Indeed, the iPlayer itself became a key focus of debate at Edinburgh. Moore insisted that iPlayer having shows on the iPlayer for longer boosted their commercial value for independent production companies by giving them “time in the sun to get noticed.”
But Pact argued that shows will lose their value by being tied in exclusively to iPlayer for a long period of time.
Chair Sara Geater told an Edinburgh session that negotiations over renumeration for longer iPlayer rights are “not going terribly well”.
“iPlayer is brilliant, and I think every independent acknowledges that but the big issue here is money.”
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