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Thursday, 30 August, 2001, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
The battle for 'original' TV shows
Nick Higham
By the BBC's media correspondent Nick Higham

If there was a theme running through this year's Edinburgh Television Festival it was originality - or the lack of it.

It first emerged in a session called The Best Idea I Never Had.

From it I learnt that one successful programme, Faking It, was dreamt up (perhaps literally) by the editor of The World Tonight, who woke up in the middle of the night and suggested a series based on Pygmalion to her husband, Faking It's producer.

The theme was there too in a session on Youth TV, in which Stuart Murphy of BBC Choice and Kate Marsh of Sky squared up to one another over whose channel was the most innovative and cutting edge.

Sky laid claim to Ibiza Uncovered, which spawned an entire genre of programmes about young people doing reprehensible things in foreign parts. Choice claimed to have spent 1m (really, Stuart?) on televising a Japanese rock festival.

Fred West
Channel 5 uses "tabloid-style shock tactics" with West broadcast
It was there too in a session devoted to drama, which started from the premise that commissioners and channel controllers no longer want originality, only cop shows and tried and tested formats.

Not surprisingly, the drama commissioners on hand denied it - for all the difficulty of launching new things without "the tent-poles of familiarity" (in the words of the BBC's Jane Tranter) and the challenge of filling a year's worth of 9pm slots (ITV's Nick Elliott).

But they were supported by a successful writer, Tony Basgallop, and an exceedingly successful producer, Nicola Shindler of Red Productions, whose position (broadly stated) was that the demand for originality outstrips the supply.

Yet much of the reporting of the Television Festival was dominated by the keynote MacTaggart lecture by ITV's David Liddiment.

Big Brother
Big Brother's success did not go unnoticed at the festival
At its simplest Liddiment's argument was that commercial and competitive pressures are driving out "creative ambition and risk-taking" in popular television.

There are too many copycat, me-too programmes. "Really great television", the sort that does more than just "bring in the numbers", is being endangered.

The reality is that if it is endangered anywhere in British television it is on the two mainstream channels, nowhere else.

For all the BBC's huffing and puffing, most delegates at Edinburgh seemed to think Liddiment had a point when he complained that BBC One has become more nakedly competitive than ever.


Equally, Liddiment's own difficulties commissioning innovative, risk-taking programmes for ITV stem from that network's unique position as the only UK channel expected to deliver a mass audience to advertisers, day in, day out.

As those other sessions showed there is no shortage of programme-makers with ideas, nor of controllers willing to commission them, in British television.

There is plenty of risk-taking - even if some of it amounts to little more than the tabloid-style shock tactics of Channel 5 broadcasting tapes of Fred West's police interrogation.

And while David Liddiment laments the effects of increased competition, John de Mol, boss of the giant Dutch independent producer Endemol, thinks the competition a bonus.


In his Worldview address, which closed the Festival, he maintained that Endemol's Big Brother (now broadcast in 17 countries) had been a success partly because there were so many channels.

"With so many choices, the industry has to take bigger risks to create the successes of tomorrow," he said.

There is no crisis of originality in British television - though there may be at ITV.

A version of this article also appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.

See also:

25 Aug 01 | TV and Radio
BBC rejects ITV chief's criticism
28 Aug 01 | TV and Radio
Britons 'lonely without TV'
27 Aug 01 | TV and Radio
Reality TV under fire
24 Aug 01 | TV and Radio
TV's favourite talking shop
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