Reporting from Jess Goodfellow and Gillian West.
The third and final day of the Edinburgh TV Festival was a much quieter affair with Edinburgh Does Question Time kicking things off. Professor Green and Mel B stopped by mid-morning to bring Lip Sync Battle to the Scottish capital with sessions on VR and IS and an Alternative MacTaggart from Sharon Horgan rounding things off.
At Edinburgh TV Festival’s Question Time event, executives from the broadcasters, news and regulators were quizzed on over-impartiality in public broadcasting, the privatisation of Channel 4, and of course, Shane Smith’s MacTaggart lecture.
Over-impartiality during the EU referendum
First up a question was put to the panel on whether impartiality stopped the BBC regulating the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, leading the public to take a majority anti-EU stance without proper education.
BBC’s director of news and current affairs James Harding pointed out the irony of the BBC being “clobbered” for its impartiality, since when he joined in 2013 the organisation was condemned for its bias.
In his defense, he stated “I haven’t had anyone come to me with any solid example of what it was that they didn’t like”.
“I don't think anyone went into a voting booth unaware of the fact that the Governor of the Bank of England, the head of the IMF, the President of the United States, all thought that staying in the European Union was the right thing to do. They voted against that opinion and that includes leaders of the FTSE. The job of the BBC is clearly to give, in the event of a referendum, fair treatment to both sides of the argument it is not to make the argument.”
He added that the job of the public broadcaster is “not to refute” but “to challenge and interrogate those people”.
Tim Hincks, former president of Endemol Shine, suggested that the role of news perhaps had a small role to play in the voting decisions of the British public, since it was “an emotional decision”. Above all else, the coverage of the referendum underlined the “paramount importance of public service news”, he said.
Harding then highlighted a problem of more pressing importance, in the perception of politics on social media. He said while the BBC has grown its social media following considerably in recent years, the likelihood of followers of @BBCBreaking clicking through and reading the stories is “extraordinarily low”. That means most users are getting their news entirely from headlines, which brings with it a raft of educational problems.
“We could have 23m followers who are reading the headlines, but even on a really interesting story only about 120,000 people click through. If you think about that from the point of view of a politician, landing a headline, even if it is not entirely true, actually is worth it, because you land the point that you want to make and what we do journalistically is question typically in the second or third paragraph. Most people never get to it. So I think there is a really important role for all journalists and newsrooms to get after this.”
Shane Smith's infamous MacTaggart lecture
Next up each member of the panel offered up their takeaways from Vice chief executive Shane Smith’s now infamous MacTaggart lecture. While the response among broadcasters has been majority negative, Hincks offered that “a MacTaggart that divides is a good MacTaggart”, and all agreed.
While all took umbridge to certain aspects of Smith’s speech, his authority in the youth space is undeniable, with Hincks saying: “What he demonstrates is the absolute importance and scarcity of creative leadership. While we spend a lot of time talking about how content brings people together, we shouldn't underestimate the fundamental importance of content that divides.”
A fundamental point of Smith’s lecture was that young people are being underserved by high quality, hard-hitting content from broadcasters. Hincks took issue with the way Vice proposes to fulfil that gap.
“What I believe is the way to impress any audience, in particular a younger audience, is not to go down a list of things they are interested in and then film them. There is some great content on Vice but that is definitely not the way to do it. It is much more subtle than that. The best television is much more multi-led.
“This tells you quite a lot about America, and tells you quite a lot about what the main networks don’t put on. I do think notwithstanding the many problems with how we reflect Britain we reflect it a lot more convincingly on the big platforms then the US do.”
Dan Brooke, chief marketing and communications officer at Channel 4, echoed Hinck’s point on the UK – US divide: “It is almost as if he was giving that speech to a US audience and not taking enough account of how things are in the UK.”
Brooke’s “quibble” with Smith is one pointed out by his colleague Jay Hunt the day before; that the high minded content that Smith showed in his MacTaggart “is being screened out by the Facebook algorithm”.
“The majority of Vice’s content that comes into my feed is about sex and drugs, and there is nothing wrong with that but he was giving off a different impression. There is a real opportunity in social media to offer fantastic news to young people. There are 10 times as much views to Channel 4 News Facebook content than there is to Vice.”
David Elstein, chairman, OpenDemocracy.net, took this a step further: “The proportion of actual original material of high quality designed for the younger audience that Vice is delivering is about one per cent of their content. It’s like Netflix is changing its model from archive to origination, but it is still about 95 – 5.”
Harding, on the other side, said Smith made some significant points on the state of the industry: “Look at what is happening in the US, the 30 second commercial spot is dying and the consolidation that comes with that means that what they are seeing in the US is what they saw also ahead of us in the newspaper industry.
“Even for Vice, if they want to fund the creation of high quality video they need to fund it out of television in order that they can pick up the profit and make money in mobile. That seems to me to be really important to anyone in television. We have got to think about the nature of the relationship we have got not just on TV but on mobile. It is true that young people are watching more TV on their mobiles, the issue for all of us is how do we measure it.”
The privatisation of Channel 4
Channel 4 and its proposed privatisation divided the panel even more. Elstein appeared to have extensive knowledge of Channel 4’s financial status and remit and offered up some strong opinions to back this up.
"The reason I favoured a privatisation process was to challenge the government statement that what would happen would be an enhancement of the Channel 4 remit, and I am a strong believer in enhancing the Channel 4 remit. The current Channel 4 remit is paper thin compared with the pre-2003 remit in terms of fixed quotas. Under the current remit Channel 4 is not required to broadcast a single first run programme at all. It now devotes 60 per cent of its broadcasting to repeats. It used to be that that was forbidden. We have had a huge erosion of the old Channel 4 pre-2003 and I would like to see it enhanced.”
Hincks piped up: “And yet Channel 4 is better. So it would seem that would not be about remits.”
Elstein stood strong in his view: “Is Channel 4 better? Absolutely not.”
Channel 4’s own Brooke jumped in with his defence of the public state of the broadcaster:
“If you privatise Channel 4 - which we very much hope is not going to happen- what you would gain is a lump sum for the treasury but relatively soon the economy, our culture and society would be worse off, you would get fewer programmes, fewer indies working with you, less concentration on the PSP genres, less focus on new talent, less focus on diversity.
Sharon White, chief executive officer of Ofcom, the regulator of UK media, asserted Channel 4 was in good health in its current model: “We did an annual review of C4 and found it is both financially stable and delivering very well against the remit with some exceptions.”
On a final note, Brooke reassured audiences that despite press coverage of underfunding for the Rio 2016 Paralympics, “it is going ahead and will be just as big and hopefully successful as London”.
BBC Three admits problems with its UX
Taking to the stage for the last ‘Meet the Controller’ session was BBC Three’s Damian Kavanagh.
Speaking to June Saprong, Kavanagh covered a wide range of topics not least how the first six months of being online-only has played out.
“We’ve still got the same tagline - ‘make me laugh, make me think’ - as the online proposition is the same thing,” said Kavanagh, who revealed that despite BBC Three’s long form content no running on BBC One or Two it hasn’t changed his approach to commissioning.
“I would never commission for BBC One or Two it has to speak to our audience first, no compromise,” he said.
When pressed on the lack of real audience figures and data Kavangah said the BBC knows that the iPlayer does tend to skew younger than the rest of the corporation and that qualitative research is used as a means of identifying audience. Of the Thinkbox stats which reveal the BBC has lost younger viewers since BBC Three’s online move, Kavanagh commented: “The devil is in the detail and it depends which shows are on, Bake Off is now back and the Olympics drew a huge young audience, it’s dangerous to measure over six months as those stats will change depending on what’s on.”
When pressed on the UX problems around the BBC Three site, Kavanagh remained coy at first before admitting defeat that there was “improvement to be made.”
“I can’t go away and build something new as it has to site within the BBC, what I will say is we need feedback on the site, I don’t handle the build of the site, I run the content,” he said. “We have a roadmap - I hope it ends somewhere nice - but right now it works and you shouldn’t take that for granted.”
Of whether or not the site loses BBC Three viewers, Kavanagh revealed that single item view numbers were strong but there was a problem with the onward user journey and vowed to crack it.
Rounding up the session with his thoughts on Vice Kavanagh was asked ‘can Vice work on TV?’ to which said it was all about Vice’s end game. “Shane [Smith] has shareholders to serve and he’s trying to put content in as many places as he can to sell an ad behind it. Just because someone watches Vice doesn’t mean they’re not watching BBC Three - it’s not either or.”
Missed the TV Festival? Catch up on day one and day two, Shane Smith's reaction to the MacTaggart backlash and why The Late Late Show sees Carpool Karaoke as a gateway drug.