Much to celebrate at the Edinburgh Television Festival
- 27 August 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
British television is on an Olympics high, and the impact was felt throughout this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival.
From the moment Elisabeth Murdoch praised the "exuberant and unrivalled BBC coverage" in her keynote MacTaggart lecture till the closing session, when Locog's director of ceremonies Martin Green revealed they'd never expected the Queen to take part personally in the James Bond TV sequence, there was an acknowledgment that it was TV which made the Olympics such a remarkable experience for so many millions of people.
"It wasn't Twitter that made us cry," said Murdoch: "It was the power of television."
For the 1,800 TV producers and executives gathered in Edinburgh, it was a shot in the arm after years in which television has been on the back foot - battered by budget cuts, audience fragmentation and claims that the once all-powerful medium had been superseded by the internet.
The Olympics audience figures were "just breathtaking", said Richard Bacon, chairing the final session. "52.1 million people in the UK watched some of the Olympics coverage. Peak audiences of over 26 million saw the opening and closing ceremonies. 24.2 million people pressed the Red Button. There were 39 million UK browsers to BBC Sport, and 12 million mobile video requests."
"Some people said linear television would eventually be replaced by digital channels, but what this shows is you can do both," said Roger Mosey, the BBC's director of London 2012. "BBC One and BBC Three did fantastically well but so did online and mobile. It shows you can make big events bigger if you use all your platforms.
"You might think that using 24 channels would damage BBC One, but actually it strengthened it" he said. "People loved the fact that they could edit their own Olympics, so if you wanted to watch the fencing and then the Greco-Roman wrestling you could. People loved that choice."
This was reflected in the audience appreciation figures. Some 96% of people said the TV coverage "met or exceeded" their expectations.
"Ipsos-MORI said they were the highest figures they had ever seen," said Mosey. "Of course we had wonderful material to work with, because the Games and the ceremonies and torch relay were so brilliantly organised, but it felt as though we were really in tune with the nation and each fed the other."
The response was particularly satisfying after the criticism of coverage of the Queen's jubilee river pageant. Mosey said the BBC had conceded that was "probably not its finest hour" but insisted the rest of the BBC's jubilee output had been a success.
Elisabeth Murdoch's warm endorsement of the BBC, and not just its Olympics coverage, surprised some of her audience. It's not what they expect from a Murdoch. Three years ago her brother James, in his own MacTaggart lecture, accused a "dominant" BBC of "chilling" ambitions and of purveying "state-sponsored journalism".
Twenty years before, her father Rupert had attacked British television, particularly the BBC, for being obsessed with the past, and part of a "British disease" which portrayed "businessmen as crooks".
Some observed that the BBC commissions Elisabeth's company, Shine, to make hit programmes such as Merlin and MasterChef (and the now-discontinued Spooks). Others suggested she was attempting, with her husband, the PR guru Matthew Freud, to "detoxify Brand Murdoch".
Whatever the explanation, she "put on record" that she was a "current supporter of the BBC's universal licence fee" which mandates "its unique purpose as a strategic catalyst to the creative industries of this great country".
And in contrast with Rupert Murdoch's view that the BBC lived in the past (which may have been justified in 1989), his daughter said: "The BBC seems furthest ahead in understanding that our new world demands new eco-systems. Under the vision and leadership of Mark Thompson, the BBC has been the market leader for building new relationships and services, with creatives from every sector."
She also chastised previous festival organisers for the fact that she was the first woman in 17 years to deliver the MacTaggart Lecture (and only the third woman in total - she was also the third Murdoch to deliver it).
Speaking later in the festival's Question Time session, Harriet Harman, the deputy Labour leader, expressed her frustration: "You wait 17 years for a woman to give the MacTaggart Lecture and it's a Murdoch - it's like waiting for a woman to be prime minister and finding it's Margaret Thatcher."
Ms Harman welcomed Ms Murdoch's support of the BBC, but said the corporation now faced another threat to its future - from Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond. He told his festival audience that Scotland had been "short-changed" by "outdated" broadcasting policies dictated from Westminster and if the country gained independence after the 2014 referendum, he would replace the BBC with a new public service broadcaster.
Ms Harman said: "What an irony that as the Murdochs are retreating from wanting to break up the BBC, the baton is being picked up by Alex Salmond."
Shadow Scottish secretary Margaret Curran pointed out one of the risks: "On Thursday night, millions of people tuned in to see the first episode of Waterloo Road, filmed in Greenock, broadcast across the UK." She said the first minister must answer whether programmes like this would still be made in Scotland without the BBC.
Some thought Mr Salmond's timing was unfortunate, at the moment when the Olympics has made the BBC as popular as it's ever been. But TV's feel-good factor won't last forever and the festival debated several other key issues facing the industry.
There were discussions about the Leveson Inquiry, made more immediate by the publication during the Festival of naked photos of Prince Harry in Las Vegas.
Elisabeth Murdoch acknowledged that the phone hacking at the News of the World had been a nightmare for her family - though much worse for the victims and the parents of Milly Dowler.
She said the "dearth of integrity" by so many institutions had made it hard for the industry to argue for a free press and light touch regulation. But overall, speakers felt that this was a newspaper issue, not one that affects television, which is already highly regulated.
A new BBC director-general, George Entwistle, takes charge next month, and must continue to implement budget cuts and there was no shortage of suggestions and advice. Former BBC One controller Lorraine Heggessy, now an independent producer, said the corporation must simplify its commissioning process to save time and money.
Roger Mosey was reticent when asked whether the success of the Olympics meant the BBC might now dedicate a channel to sport, or give greater coverage to the minority sports that proved so popular.
But there was some comfort for Mr Entwistle from Steven Moffatt, the man behind two of the BBC's big international hits, Sherlock and Doctor Who. He discussed both series at the festival and said Doctor Who could go on making money for the BBC for generations to come.
As the glow of the Olympics fades, the BBC may well be very grateful for it.