After a couple of brutal years, the mood at 2010's Edinburgh International TV Festival was more upbeat. This year, blind panic was not, thankfully, granted a delegate pass. If the sky really is still falling in on the broadcasting industry, it's a Sky that's Murdoch-shaped, and that's only if Mark Thompson's MacTaggart lecture is to be taken at face value.
So, amid the feelgood sessions that sought to remind attendees of the powerful cultural heritage of TV (the soaptastic 50 years of Corrie or 25 years of EastEnders), topics such as 3D, gaming, on-demand and branded content showed an industry keen to meet the fundamental structural changes head-on.
A session entitled The Trouble With Ideas was illustrative of this more practical, outward-facing feel to the Festival programme. It sought to scrutinise the stresses and strains placed on resource-strapped indies as they look to secure that elusive commission.
Misguided, factory-line approaches to idea creation; a lack of rigour and insight driving the creative process; enforced and unpaid responses to insubstantial briefs; the desire to innovate, undermined by the demand for me-too solutions - don't these sound like the topics of any ad conference you might attend? Well, for once, these moans and groans were emanating from the mouths of TV execs.
Speakers from other sections of the creative industry - advertising, media, design and arts - were invited to offer perspectives on approaching idea creation in their own fields, while also offering solutions to a theoretical programming brief set by Sky's head of entertainment, Duncan Gray.
The session was significant for the contrasts and similarities it highlighted between two creative industries that have always been co-dependent - television and advertising - but whose futures are becoming directly entwined.
What's apparent is that the working dynamics of producers and commissioners are not best placed to deliver mould-breaking ideas. Commissioning departments too often issue programming briefs without any clear sense of objective, while innovation loses out to safer programming ideas that will protect share. Similarly, producers, desperate to feed the machine in a tough market, feel forced to fall back on derivative ideas that tread lines of least resistance.
The time and resource that the ad industry invests to understand its audiences stood in stark contrast to that employed by television makers. While agencies will leave not one stone unturned on the basis of uncovering some new creative insight into consumer behavior, television ideas are rarely subjected to the same strategic stress-testing.
As a result, the panelists argued, innovation through technological trends is too often absent from the DNA of programme ideas despite the growing proliferation of devices and platforms.
One point on which the session was unanimous: the best work comes from long-term partnerships. But it appears to be something TV is struggling to maintain: the commissioner/producer merrygo-round is spinning ever faster. Agencies prize long-term, exclusive relationships with its clients, and the benefits are clear. Whether a TV industry that has massive oversupply to a small number of buyers can mirror this is debatable.
The benefits of longer-term collaboration is trust. Big ideas always ask far more of the buyer than the seller. But when they take hold, these ideas don't just answer an immediate brief, they have a transformational effect, spreading across platforms and generating new revenues. Just ask Wall to Wall, the creator of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?. This isn't just a TV show, it's a fast-growing genealogy business in both the UK and US with mags, events and websites.
Lessons such as this seemed to point to the paths of optimism. With the indie sector enjoying an unprecedented period of success in the US, the climate is right for a step change in creating television as pieces of intellectual property that can work as standalone businesses and not just great programmes to fill slots. It's about taking lessons from the global giants of the entertainment industry who launch a big idea on simultaneous content platforms (see Disney and Toy Story 3 for a masterclass).
What The Trouble With Ideas really highlighted, more than anything, is the value of investing time in creating brands. And as readers of this magazine know, our industry's pretty good at that.
- Mark Eaves is the managing director of Drum PHD.
EDINBURGH HIGHLIGHTS ...
- Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, came out strongly in favour of deregulating the way airtime is traded. Hunt said Contract Rights Renewal should go because ITV is "no longer a major broadcaster in financial terms" and competes in a wider market than it used to. He added: "It is possible we may need a broader review. It depends on the view you take: whether you see ITV as DTT or competing with broadcasters like Sky."
- Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, used his MacTaggart lecture to promise cuts to the BBC budget focused on the salaries of top executives and on-screen talent. He pledged to cut BBC senior management headcount by one-fifth and criticised Sky for not investing enough in "British talent and British content." He proposed that Sky should pay ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 transmission fees in return for carrying their channels on its EPG - a move that would generate funds for original UK programming.
- Katie Price, aka Jordan, pulled out of a scheduled interview with the psychologist Dr Pamela Stephenson Connolly.
- Paul Abbott, the creator of Shameless, used his alternative MacTaggart lecture slot to attack UK broadcasters and their approach to drama. He said: "I think we're addicted to a damaging level of safety. Everything's become safer and far less expansive than I think we were at 20-odd years ago."