Raymond Snoddy on media: Allen highlights conflict at ITV's heart

By the time they sweep up the broken glass from the floor of the George Hotel in Edinburgh, that's usually it for the latest bunch of daft ideas for another year.

The over-cooked concepts that have momentarily entertained the delegates at the Television Festival over a few pints are quickly forgotten.

ITV's outgoing chief executive Charles Allen took his formal leave from the TV industry with dignity and humour in his MacTaggart lecture, but let's quietly pass over the logic of calling for a stricter public service remit for Channel 4 while also arguing that the channel should be privatised.

And his suggestion that bits of the BBC's best production capacity should be somehow sold off was merely a variant on a previous bizarre suggestion by BSkyB's Tony Ball that the BBC should be forced to sell its most popular shows to the highest bidder.

In the circumstances, Allen should be forgiven his attacks on Channel 4 and its unremittingly commercial remit, and even for the jokes - particularly that justifying the channel's Wank Week as educational programming 'could be a hard one to pull off'.

Yet, largely buried by the bluster and the headlines, was a serious point - one that Allen called the billion-pound question: where exactly is the funding for commercial television going to come from in future, and will the marketing community find itself increasingly in the frame as the guilty party if the money goes missing?

This year, Allen warned, ITV1 revenues will be lower than any year since 1993, yet over the same period ITV investment in programmes had increased by 50%. 'Investing more and more to generate less and less just isn't sustainable,' he argued, suggesting that ITV had many other ways of making profit than pouring money into a terrestrial television channel.

The audience for such an argument included the government and Ofcom, but advertisers, Allen warned, will have to decide what they want. 'They want ITV to be strong, to deliver mass, to own event(s), to surprise with drama that shakes the trees. But the flipside of that - investing with us in the schedule, giving us the financial firepower to do the job - they're just not quite there yet,' he moaned.

Then, just as the argument needed to be developed and explored - what are advertisers supposed to do when confronted with atrocious ratings? - Allen hared off in the more agreeable direction of Channel 4.

There certainly is a debate to be had with the next ITV chief executive on how, if at all, advertisers can realistically help to sustain a mass-market TV channel over the longer term.

If Ashley Highfield, the BBC's technology and new media boss, is right, then perhaps the game is up already. He predicted that, by 2011, TV broadcasts of only two events would have the potential to clear 10m viewers - a royal wedding and an England World Cup final.

Only supreme optimists would bet on an England World Cup final by 2011 and Prince Charles has already been married twice, making this a very bleak forecast indeed. In such a world, a 4m audience would represent a hit as the young desert television for MySpace and YouTube.

Maybe. We'll check out Highfield's prediction in five years' time.

Meanwhile, the prediction from former US vice-president Al Gore, delivering his Alternative MacTaggart lecture, was more comforting.

Gore, who runs an internet TV channel, Current TV, argued that there were now two cultures side by side: a TV-focused one and an internet-oriented one.

Change might take longer than expected. Politicians in the US still spent 80% of their advertising budgets on TV activity because of 'the quasi-hypnotic' effect of the medium.Which means that there might just be something in it for advertisers after all.


- The Edinburgh International Television Festival was founded in 1976 and is held annually over the August Bank Holiday weekend.

- The Festival programme includes more than 50 lectures, screenings, masterclasses, interviews and networking parties, covering the key issues facing the industry.

- It is attended by more than 1900 UK and international delegates at all levels and from all sections of the TV industry and related sectors, including advertising and talent agencies, media law firms, radio stations and interactive developers.

- Previous speakers include Rupert Murdoch, Peter Mandelson, Greg Dyke, Dennis Potter, Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Shameless writer Paul Abbott.

- The Festival's title sponsor is MediaGuardian. Other sponsors include the BBC, Disney, ITV, Sky, 3, Barclays, MTV and Warner Bros.


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