Television: Life beyond the wasteland

Television: Life beyond the wasteland

Every August Bank Holiday the television industry travels North to spend a few days talking about itself. The centrepiece of the Edinburgh Television Festival is the Mactaggart lecture, this year being delivered by Eric Schmidt of Google.

To the neutral observer this has to be good news. It breaks the cycle of lectures which one year aim punches at the BBC and the next offer a stout defence (although this hasn’t stopped Mark Thompson from taking the chance to get one more dig in).

But the choice of an international web giant to deliver the speech is welcome not just because it breaks the squabbling cycle. It’s the right time for the execs and creatives to look around at the wider context.

Politicians know that TV matters. This is totally understandable given that has for two generations it has been the way to get elected, and that Britons watch more TV every year. But they also know that when it comes to policy making, broadcast is a medium which lends itself to intervention.

A Mactaggart speaker looking for inspiration should listen to Newton P Minow’s ‘Television is a Vast Wasteland’ speech. Forty years ago, the Chairman of the FCC stood before US television execs and, after challenging them to actually sit and watch the programmes they churned out, told them to deliver output in the public interest or lose their licence to broadcast.

The speech is a classic. But it is inconceivable that it could be made today. Not just because Minow’s patrician air would sound fogey-ish, but also because the ability of policy makers to manipulate what is on TV is evaporating.

Once, broadcast represented closed, one-way communications, delivered by a tightly constrained number of players. And the commercial sector enjoyed handsome profits which could in part be diverted to social or industrial objectives. Hence ITV found room at peak time for Glyndebourne, while the Government was able to insist on regional quotas and public service programming.

Now the days of media scarcity are gone. Consumers have more choice than ever, and are getting the content they want when they want it. Advertising profits are slipping away to other parts of the media. Ministers find few TV outlets which can any longer sustain the demands of the political class.

Policy makers are having to recognise this. Jeremy Hunt’s Communications Review will almost certainly map out the path to a media future with much less regulation, and possibly even to a time beyond Public Service Broadcasting.

A truly ambitious Government might look to construct a new public service media environment, in which Minow’s ‘public interest’ is served through sheer diversity of choice rather than Government insistence.

Tonight, Eric Schmidt will get his chance to set out what that future might look like. The TV industry would do well to pay attention.

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