You couldn't make it up

Claire Fox reports on the Guardian Edinburgh International TV Festival and its obsession with 'real people'.

You can tell that the Guardian Edinburgh International TV Festival (GEITF) has started when all available taxis are swallowed up by generous expense accounts and TV executives’ inability to walk. It is over when the lost-and-found offices are piled high with mobile phones, left in the backs of cabs by TV types cavorting from one industry drinks party to the next.

For the three days in between, anybody who is anybody in TV converges on Edinburgh for the August bank holiday weekend, to assess the current state of their medium.

The focus of this year’s festival was undoubtedly ITV chief David Liddiment’s opening MacTaggart lecture. Liddiment argued passionately against the present obsession with ratings, and focus group TV. No doubt Liddiment’s attack on the BBC for abandoning creative leadership had a sectarian twist - after all, attacking the BBC for trying to be as dumbed down as ITV (when you run ITV) does seem a bit rich. 

But this speech had the rare merit of challenging contemporary orthodoxy about the intellectual capacity of TV audiences. Liddiment refused to accept that the call for challenging and difficult TV was elitist. And whatever Liddiment’s motives, the spectacle of somebody in authority going against the grain had an astonishing effect on his listeners.

When Liddiment passionately appealed to us to save the ‘soul of British television’, I expected sneers from the usually cynical hacks, who are prone to scoff at such high-mindedness. Instead, the person sitting next to me wiped a tear from her eye. Commissioning editors looked genuinely moved and the thunderous applause was reminiscent of a religious revival rally. After years of broadcasters chasing audience figures, and sacrificing originality and quality in the name of giving people what they want, here was Rev Liddiment shouting ‘the emperor has no clothes’.

Sadly, Liddiment’s impact was short-lived; and the festival itself quickly resembled the trends he riled against. Serious debates were turned into TV formats. The discussion about whether TV has become too obsessed with crime was conducted as though it was a live daytime talkshow, with all the superficiality and sensationalism of that genre. We had a one-line soundbite from Colin Stagg (who was wrongly implicated by police in the Rachel Nickell murder), which was designed to hit the headlines (and it did); Kate Kray (as in Reggie), presenter on Channel 5’s Hard Bastards, explained the social worth of interviewing - erm, hard bastards; and there were phone-ins featuring C-list celebs (Michael Winner!).

The Yoof TV discussion could usefully have tackled the way in which the obsession with focusing around age groups is creating TV ‘ghettos’ of samey, unchallenging programmes. Instead, it took the form of a Shooting Stars-style gameshow, with participants quizzed on TV clips. As I winced in my seat, it dawned on me that organisers of the event were underestimating even this audience of their peers. Surely nobody will want to reflect soberly on the big debates in TV, so - what shall we do? Give them bread and circuses.

Liddiment primarily blamed commercial pressures as the reason why those in TV continually underestimate their audience. But after listening to speakers at the GEITF, the key problem seems to be that many in TV have lost faith in their own capacity to shape an audience’s tastes. Instead, they try to second-guess audience tastes.

Brave TV pioneers can - if they have faith in the public - create a wide appetite for new ideas and new worlds. Panorama, and the now-deceased World In Action, both hooked me on to politics and current affairs. Play for Today created my thirst for drama long before I visited a theatre. While that was no golden age, I felt as though somebody in TV believed in my generation by taking us seriously. By contrast, today’s TV makers try to win young audiences by flattery and imitation.

In the ‘Alt.news’ session, the debate centred on the need for news coverage to connect with young people. Some panellists argued that if news providers showed they cared about those issues in which they assume the young are interested, and if they presented a positive portrayal of causes such as anti-globalisation protests, this would switch on young viewers to news.

But anti-globalisation protests are not about youth, but about politics. The news should offer objectivity and analysis to allow people - of all ages - to consider the best way, for example, of dealing with development issues in the third world. Attempting to make news ‘relevant’ for different viewer types means that BBC Choice is offering 60-second news slots for the young with interactive internet back-up (well, if it worked for Big Brother, it can work for foreign news).

The session ‘Losing Your Religion’ discussed Channel 4’s new scheme to make religious programmes aimed at the young. Proposals included a documentary on witchcraft based on the dubious assumption that because the youth demographic watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this was one way to discuss religion with them.

If the young are patronised, older viewers fare little better. Jane Root, controller of BBC2, is repackaging the channel as ‘Viagra for the over-35s’. In Root’s universe, post-35 we all become manic homebodies, obsessed with interior decor, dinner parties, our looks or our personal lives. She delightedly launched What Not To Wear - a series that will see fashion experts charged with ‘transforming ugly ducklings into swans’ - as clever and cutting-edge.

Ultimately, TV, which is so keen to ingratiate itself with its audience, might as well go the whole hog, and simply make the audience the subject of its programmes. You can hear the logic: how can we connect with real people? Put real people on TV.

Bastard sons of Big Brother promised at the festival include Cheaters, which follows and films erring sexual partners and brings all parties together for a confrontation. BBC2 offers Would Like To Meet, in which experts will spend eight weeks advising hapless ‘real people’ on how to improve their skills in getting a date. ITV gives us The Farmer Wants A Wife, charting the quest of lonely farmers in search of a partner. So refreshing to see countryside issues being taken seriously!

The BBC public-service twist on reality TV means that history is given the ‘real people’ make-over. Hot on the heals of Iron Age and The 1940s House (real families in real Iron Age/1940s conditions) is The Trench, in which real people will experience the ‘real’ conditions of a trench in the First World War. BBC’s Jeremy Gibson, chair of this year’s GEITF, conceded that mustard gas would not be used.

Channel 4 - which claims to be committed to documentaries about the developing world - gives us Going Native, in which a British family was filmed experiencing the hardships of an African homestead for 10 weeks. Do those who work in TV think so little of their audience that they believe we need to see outselves on screen, to get the point of politics or history?

To David Liddiment, and all those inspired by his MacTaggart lecture, the challenge is to restore TV’s faith in the audience. Outside of GEITF, the other Edinburgh festivals proved that audiences are thirsty for more than the banal and the obvious. At the Fringe Festival, hundreds of theatre companies performed a wide variety of plays, from new work to revived classics (three versions of Medea can’t be bad!), watched by record numbers.

Watching these young people treading the boards and learning their craft in front of audiences of all types and ages, listening to them debate their work with critics at the late-night Roundtable Rumbles that I chaired, I was reminded that outside of TV executives’ narrow imagination there is an audience thirsting for stimulation, quality and ideas. Saving TV’s soul means believing audiences can cope with more than images of themselves.

Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas

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