Media: Spotlight - Reality TV, cheques and five feature at Edinburgh

The quality of programmes was high on the TV festival's agenda.

The 2004 Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival was a different beast from previous years: a point noted by the Sky Networks managing director, Dawn Airey, in her introduction to the James McTaggart Memorial Lecture.

The lecture was given this year by the BBC journalist and Radio 4 Today programme presenter John Humphrys. Out went the parade of suits and senior management with their agenda of politicking, agenda-setting and backbiting; in came a renewed focus on craft, creativity and the canker at the heart of the British television product.

This was a subject Humphrys took up with passion. His withering attack on the morals and mores of the modern British TV industry pulled few punches.

And while he conceded the best TV of today is probably better than the best TV of the past, he noted: "The bad television of today is worse. It is not only bad - it is damaging, meretricious, seedy and cynical."

Much of Humphrys' ire was aimed at "so-called reality television", responsible, he said, for turning "human beings into freaks for us to gawp at". Big Brother 5 was singled out for special attention.

Many questioned the wisdom of allowing a radio broadcaster who freely admits he hasn't owned a TV for the past five years to give such a speech.

Kevin Lygo, the Channel 4 director of programmes, admitted he hadn't attended the lecture but had read the transcript, quipping: "It was so intricately argued, it took me hours to get through it."

Humphrys' attack on reality TV came at a festival where many commercial broadcasters were touting their successes in the genre. ITV's chief executive, Charles Allen, and its director of programmes, Nigel Pickard, defending ITV's slide in the ratings, cited the success of shows such as I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! and Hell's Kitchen as examples of the channel's continued success.

Central to ITV's plans for continued growth is the launch of a third entertainment channel later in the year. ITV3 will target the 35-plus audience which, Allen said, was under-served in the UK market.

The launch forms part of a drive which Allen said would triple ITV's multichannel revenues to £150 million by 2007. ITV2 will see its programming budgets doubled as part of a £36 million boost to multichannel spending - funded in part by the £100 million cost-cutting exercise Allen has instigated following the merger.

"We are already achieving these savings faster than planned, with the December 2004 target already met," Allen said. "Just four months after the creation of ITV plc, our strategy is delivering."

The possible merger between Channel 4 and five was a topic which dominated the Public Service Broadcasting panel discussion between Airey, the Channel 4 chief executive, Andy Duncan, the five chief executive, Jane Lighting, and the ITV Broadcasting chief executive, Mick Desmond. The respective Channel 4 and five heads acknowledged that talks between the two companies had taken place, but stressed they were less advanced than the press was speculating.

It was a theme which continued to dominate in the controller sessions.

"There are lots of dogs sniffing lots of bottoms," five's director of programmes, Dan Chambers, said in his channel controller interview. "I'm not sure it will happen in the next six months." He did, however, accept there was a certain appeal to a combining of assets. "In combining the sales houses, you have more clout and with more money coming in, you can make a company that is greater than the sum of its parts. The downside is, five is a great company - if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he added.

Quite how great the company is to work for was opened to question by Lygo, who ran five's programming before taking up the same position at Channel 4. Lygo was on acid form, comparing his former home's approach to ad sales with that of Argos. Five, he said, suffered from an identity problem: "What were we there for? Some spare spectrum and cheap advertising?"

Like Chambers, Lygo accepted there were advantages to a merger, though.

"It would be pretty straightforward but, for me, the only reason to do it would be if it maintained Channel 4's unique position; so we're protected and can continue to do what we do."

By far the biggest draw at the festival was the discussion on the increase in cheque-book journalism in TV news and current affairs, with a panel that included Monica Lewinsky, Rebecca Loos, the publicist Max Clifford and the former Sun editor David Yelland.

Much of the debate centred on the role of publicists such as Clifford in brokering deals between clients and broadcasters, and the level of control a publicist can exert in the editorial process, including suggestions for certain lines of questioning and barred topics.

Steve Anderson, the ITV controller of current affairs, arts and religion, defended his department's use of paid interviews - predominantly on the Tonight with Trevor McDonald strand -arguing that they represented value for money for the broadcaster.

"We make a calculation based on whether it's a strong story, whether it will have impact and whether it will have a commercial return," Anderson said. The show's recent interview with Faria Alam, for which ITV paid £100,000, delivered an audience of 3.3 million, a 750,000 rise on the normal ratings for the strand which, Anderson said, meant the programme broke even on its investment.

But the final word on chequebook journalism? The BBC journalist John Sweeney earned rapturous applause from most, and an icy glare from one, for suggesting news and current affairs producers should put their wallets away, allowing people like Clifford "to go back to the gutter where they belong".

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