Eternal optimism 

25 August 2008 tbs.pm/934

All that glitters is not gold (Peter Fincham’s Edinburgh Television Festival speech)

Now that the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival is over, what can we learn from what happened there, and (perhaps more importantly) did the attendees learn anything from the experience as well?

For starters, Peter Fincham’s keynote speech is a curious echo of the last MacTaggart speech made by Charles Allen in 2006 shortly before he left ITV, except that ITV’s predicament is if anything several times worse now than what it was two years ago. That 2006 speech also ‘brought the house down’ (at the time) but we all know what happened next.

Move forward two years and the UK economy (hence ITV’s potential ad revenues) appears to be on the brink of recession as well as Google (and other web-based advertising) continuing to eat away at UK television broadcasters’ profits. Plus BSkyB’s shareholding has blocked a ‘sugar daddy’ takeover (what was and is the biggest hope for ITV).

One issue is that ITV’s programming has barely progressed beyond what it was two years ago – the return of News At Ten was perhaps the bravest move made by Michael Grade, but like the proverbial boy who cried wolf it seems that viewers aren’t exactly watching the bulletin in their droves because few people seem to treat ITV seriously any more.

And that’s the problem for ITV. Indeed it’s the light entertainment (The X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent) that’s keeping ITV plc’s head above water from a financial perspective but in turn is doing nothing to advance its credibility, and with things like contract rights renewal still in the way it means that ITV still cannot afford to take real risks.

This was strongly alluded to with the pleas made by Peter Fincham earlier during the festival in relation to releasing ITV from its public service commitments, namely if Ofcom were to leave ITV to its own devices we would end up with ‘better’ programming. (So they honestly want us to believe, despite historical precedents that strongly suggest otherwise.)

However this sentiment not only clashes with Ofcom’s historical loosening of ITV’s commitments (which have had minimal or no effect in terms of programme quality) as well as the fact that a fair number of people actually enjoyed watching the types of programming that ITV no longer seems willing to produce. (More than they seem to think.)

Not everybody loves The X-Factor, you know.

Don’t get me wrong – the issue of contract rights renewal in particular needs resolving as a matter of urgency (Google has no such restrictions for one thing), but nobody in a government currently more concerned with its own survival will have that as a priority issue in their in tray. And ITV still needs some form of regulation just to protect it from itself.

So if the current regulatory system is hobbling ITV close to breaking point, then it’s perhaps best to just rip up the old Channel 3 franchise system and start again afresh, maybe implementing a US-style affiliate system with a central sustaining feed (as previously suggested by various people).

But that of course will require a whole new Communications Act, which won’t happen until well after the next election, and the commercial sector has spent so much time and effort bashing the BBC in the meantime that the licence fee will probably be reformed/abolished first by central government before ITV’s problems are properly attended to.

Such problems will continue to hinder any new owner of ITV plc, and if ITV doesn’t step up its own production quota drastically (and soon), then the broadcaster may turn out to be a poisoned chalice for RTL or whoever ends up being brave enough to take on the ITV problem.

These days it seems that the major US networks (apart from Fox of course with its BSkyB connection) are now more interested in the production side of things, with NBC’s recent acquisition of Carnival being a pointer to a future where the content providers may take over from broadcasters in order of importance as a result of video-on-demand services.

Except of course when a broadcaster also happens to be known for its own productions, which is where the recent attempts to boost the importance of ITV Productions comes into play, but so far this has had minimal effect (yet another frustration for the current regime at ITV plc) largely due to the aforementioned factors that affect risk-taking.

The problem of course could be that the ‘best’ solution for rescuing the Channel 3 system may be actively disliked by ITV plc, therefore ITV itself won’t campaign for such a solution unless someone else who’s hugely influential lobbies Parliament for such a change, or (even less likely) such an idea has managed to independently gain support as a policy.

Therefore it ultimately looks as if ITV is doomed to stumble from one crisis to another in the current uncertain economic climate whilst waiting for a foreign investor to bail out the leaky boat and/or someone in government to actually realise what the problem is as opposed to what various interest groups have been lobbying for over the years.

Which, as we all know, will take quite some time under the current circumstances.