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Report from Edinburgh: ‘Big Brother,’ fighting words and flourishing opportunities for factual

As three days of panel discussions and presentations wound down at this year's MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, several themes emerged as recurrent. First, the demise of Big Brother will close one door but perhaps open others (with close to £50 million freed up for new production); secondly, factual programming will ride out the storm caused by current economic turmoil and might even flourish in the immediate future. And thirdly, James Murdoch certainly doesn't mince words.
August 31, 2009

As three days of panel discussions and presentations wound down at this year’s MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, several themes emerged as recurrent. First, the demise of Big Brother will close one door but perhaps open others (with close to £50 million freed up for new production); secondly, factual programming will ride out the storm caused by current economic turmoil and might even flourish in the immediate future. And thirdly, James Murdoch certainly doesn’t mince words.

The chairman and chief exec of News Corp for Europe and Asia and chairman for BSkyB set tongues wagging with his MacTaggart Lecture on Friday, primarily due to his assessment of the BBC, which he pegged as ‘dominant’ to the detriment of other ‘struggling’ broadcasters. ‘There is a land-grab, pure and simple, going on – and in the interests of a free society it should be sternly resisted,’ he said. ‘The land grab is spear-headed by the BBC. The scale and scope of its current activities and future ambitions is chilling.’ He also referred to British regulator Ofcom, Channel 4 and the BBC Trust as ‘unaccountable institutions,’ and said the UK is the ‘Addams family of world media.’

Needless to say, the speech was referenced several times over the course of the three days, with some panelists saying they agreed in part, and others not being so charitable. In fact, BBC business editor Robert Peston is said to have gotten into it rather heatedly with Murdoch at an official post-lecture dinner, which sadly, this reporter did not attend.

FACTUAL FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Still, there was plenty of other food for thought over the course of the event, and much for producers of factual content to chew on. In the ‘Welcome to the Dark Side’ panel, which investigated how documentary and factual producers should reflect the mood of darker times, Channel 4′s deputy head of documentaries, Simon Dickson, said the imminent demise of Big Brother provides a ‘fantastic opportunity’ for the creation of more factual content on the channel, and that he’s looking for projects like The Family and Hospital that reflect ambition and are done on a larger scale.

Speaking of Big Brother, the ‘Surviving Reality TV’ session, moderated by BB presenter Davina McCall and featuring Anna Nolan from its first season, was standing room only, proving there’s an appetite for reality not only on programming schedules but at media conferences. While the session didn’t dive terribly deeply into the psychology of reality TV, it did reveal a little of what goes on behind the scenes of such UK reality stalwarts as BB, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, with Nolan saying that she believes everyone who applies for Big Brother is ‘a little bit lost’ and X Factor winner Steve Brookstein recounting that a scene featuring him having dinner at Simon Cowell’s house was nothing more than ‘stuff from Marks & Spencer, microwaved and set it front of me.’

Meanwhile, ITV’s director of television channels and online, Peter Fincham, told those assembled for his ‘Meet the Controller’ presentation that his biggest challenge will be ‘to steer this ship through these stormy waters.’ Part of that navigation will involve, according to Fincham, an increase in factual content. ‘Over the next year or two you will see a flourishing of factual on ITV 1,’ he told interviewer Patrick Younger, who is currently president and GM of the Travel Channel in the US and soon to return to the Beeb as chief creative officer for BBC Vision Productions. Fincham is keen to further explore what he calls ‘authored journey’ productions, in which celebs present a subject that’s a passion for them. He also expressed an interest in diving into natural history more extensively – ‘We’ve let the BBC colonize that territory… there’s no reason they should monopolize it.’

The Channel of the Year awards, brilliantly hosted by Brit comic Michael McIntyre, had four out of five categories decided upon by a live audience vote. The Wire claimed non-terrestrial program of the year, while The Apprentice was voted best terrestrial program. C4 nabbed non-terrestrial channel of the year, and BBC1 scored a hat trick as top terrestrial channel. The In-Betweeners received the Network & Fast Track Program Award.

ON DEMAND AND EDGY

Sunday featured a new media panel, ‘The Truth about On Demand,’ in which survey data collected by the BBC regarding its iPlayer was presented by BBC Vision multiplatform and portfolio controller Simon Nelson. Lessons learned: live TV is not dead, and VOD consumption can actually be complimentary to TV consumption; channel brands and schedules are still important to viewers, with the bulk of iPlayer program consumption occurring within 48 hours of the program’s televised transmission, and that while, in Nelson’s words, ‘factual is finding it hard to punch above its weight’ via the iPlayer, a remedy could lie in making factual content available via the service ‘at the point of someone’s need, as opposed to the point of transmission.’

The ‘Meet the Controller’ session featuring BBC Four controller Richard Klein naturally touched plenty on matters factual, given Klein’s past as the BBC’s head of independent commissioning for Knowledge as well as commissioning editor for documentaries. While he admitted that the digital channel is ‘never going to be a channel that’s going to be in people’s living rooms all day, every day,’ he believes there’s plenty of room to grow from a content and audience perspective.

With close to £50 million to spend on programming in total, budgets are tight, but he’s keen to do more documentary and is adamant about sticking with ‘spiky, edgy’ programming that provokes and ‘forces people to ask more questions… I’m not frightened of an intelligent look at difficult subjects.’ While he’d prefer pitches to come to him through his commissioning editors (a head of music commissioning will be announced soon), he will take emails himself. Still, the same emphasis he places on diversity of content is placed on what comes to him through his team. ‘There should be a diversity of views in the commissioning process as well,’ he told interviewer Ray Snoddy. ‘I want other people’s passions to help me to run the channel… I’ve got a pretty open door.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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