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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 00:13 GMT 01:13 UK
TV's favourite talking shop
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The man behind Big Brother will make a speech
By BBC media correspondent Nick Higham

Few industries love a talking shop as much as television - and the television industry's favourite talking shop is the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Hundreds of programme-makers, executives, regulators, presenters, hangers-on and wannabes descend on Scotland's capital for the event, running this year from 25 to 28 August.

They drink and talk themselves silly, network like anything and largely ignore those rival attractions, the Edinburgh Festival proper, the Edinburgh Book and Film Festivals and the Fringe.

Somewhere among it all, the odd television programme even gets screened - although often, one suspects, to an audience of bleary delegates looking for somewhere dark to nurse their hangovers.

Sharon and Ross in a scene from Eastenders
Comments are expected about BBC One's ratings-chasing

As it happens, this year's TV festival has been deprived of one of its main attractions.

The Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell had been expected to announce the government's response to BBC plans to launch a raft of new TV and radio services.

Instead Ms Jowell is staying at home to be with her son, whose former girlfriend Amelia Ward was killed by a rock fall earlier this week while abseiling on a school trip to South Africa.

But there is still the festival's keynote MacTaggart Lecture, named for a revered Scottish programme-maker.

In the past this has been given by an impressive collection of heavy-hitters, including Rupert Murdoch, Michael Grade, John Birt, Greg Dyke and Dennis Potter.

The late Mr Potter, who was seriously ill with cancer, used it as a platform to excoriate the BBC run by what he called the "croak-voiced Dalek" John Birt.

This year it is being given by David Liddiment, director of programmes at ITV.

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We are promised a thoughtful piece about the threat to creative programme-making in a world of ever-increasing competition.

Liddiment will, we are told, suggest ways of ensuring that creativity is at the heart of television, and in particular ways of "reflecting and protecting television's cultural role."

Liddiment's friends assure us that he is not about to follow in the footsteps of Potter - and indeed Murdoch, Grade and a host of other MacTaggart lecturers - by attacking the BBC.

But the corporation is bracing itself for a few waspish remarks about the over-enthusiastic way Liddiment thinks BBC One now chases ratings.

He is also expected to criticise the extent to which he thinks "culture" - meaning demanding programmes of all kinds - has been exiled from the BBC mainstream.

ITV, of course, has a vested interest in pressing the BBC to be as "unpopular" as possible, but the lecture is bound to give the weekend newspapers - and Festival delegates - something to chew on.

Other big names scheduled to speak include John de Mol, boss of the giant Dutch production company Endemol and the man who gave the world Big Brother.

There will also be American producer Darren Star, the man behind hits like Sex and the City and Beverley Hills 90210, and the American journalist Michael Wolff, author of a scorching analysis of the bubble, Burn Rate.

Stagg and Kray

Some of the festival's sessions seem deliberately designed to court controversy.

Colin Stagg, for instance, who was tried for the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common, will take part with Kate Kray, wife of the gangster Ronnie Kray, in a session devoted to the burgeoning number of true crime shows on television.

Vanessa Feltz leaving the celebrity Big Brother household
Vanessa Feltz will be discussing what makes the perfect reality TV contestant
The festival organisers expect Stagg's presence to "encourage an exchange of ideas".

He played himself in an ITV reconstruction of Rachel Nickell's murder, so knows a thing or two about TV's treatment of crime.

And then there is the session which proposes to debate whether most programmes about lesbians are cynical exercises in attracting 16-25 year old male viewers.

The latter do not watch a great deal of television and are thus much sought after by advertisers.

But there is plenty about the festival intended purely to divert.

This includes ritual sessions in which senior television executives agree to make fools of themselves for the rest of the industry's amusement.

This year Dawn Airey, chief executive of Channel 5, and Alan Yentob, the BBC's most senior programme-maker, agreed to be filmed going Back to the Floor.

She will be a researcher on Channel 5's chat show Open House with Gloria, he on a show called Don't Read the Manual on the digital channel BBC Choice.

BBC One's controller, Lorraine Heggessey, will be debating what makes a good reality TV contestant with Vanessa Feltz.

Anne Robinson in Weakest Link presenter pose
But will Anne Robinson dare bid Michael Grade: "Goodbye"?
And - in what could well be the festival's highlight - Heggessey will be among eight television bosses competing in a special edition of The Weakest Link, hosted by Anne Robinson.

ITV's controller of sport, Channel 5's director of marketing and Peter Bazalgette (godfather of the British version of Big Brother) will also be answering questions on general knowledge and popular TV.

The grandest of the panellists is Michael Grade, now chairman of Pinewood Studios but before that chief executive of Channel 4 - and before that the controller of BBC One.

Now he has applied for the job of chairman of the BBC, and reached the shortlist.

Will Anne Robinson have the gall to dismiss him with her customary terse "Goodbye"?

You will have to come to Edinburgh to find out.

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