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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Edinburgh's TV talking shop

By Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

The Edinburgh Television Festival takes place in Edinburgh this weekend. But it isn't a festival at all, really.

There are none of the distinguishing characteristics of Edinburgh's other summer jamborees: most conspicuously, this is one event where the public are definitely not encouraged to get involved.

It is an industry conference, a talking shop, a chance for producers and programme-makers, managers and bureaucrats from all corners of the British television industry to take stock of what they do.

Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine
Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine will feature
But outside the formal conference sessions there are parties and a long tradition of propping up the bar in the George Hotel until the wee small hours. People come to gossip and get drunk.

Yet not all the conference programme itself is deadly serious. In one of the opening sessions, two of television's top executives - BBC Two controller Jane Root and Sky managing director Dawn Airey - open their wardrobes to inspection by Trinny and Susannah.

Shortly after, another session goes Through the Keyhole into a succession of commissioning editors' offices.

Both are among those bits of the conference programme billed as dealing with The Big Issues - surely proof positive for those who think television is terminally obsessed with the trivial (not to mention obsessed with itself).

But the programme includes plenty of debates of substance as well. Rod Liddle, the editor who recruited Andrew Gilligan to Radio 4's Today programme, and Yosri Fouda, chief investigative journalist at Al Jazeera, will be among the panellists discussing whether Britain needs a "biased" news service like the intensely patriotic and conservative Fox News in America.

Rageh Omaar
BBC reporter Rageh Omaar will join a session on war reporting
Liddle, nowadays a professional polemicist, later gets a platform to himself to lecture us, among other things, on political correctness in television.

A cast of thousands, including the BBC's Rageh Omaar, ITV's Juliet Bremner and Sky News's Ross Appleyard, will discuss coverage of the Iraq war.

Veterans of Coronation Street, the Bill, Hollyoaks and Emmerdale will hand out tips on revitalising flagging soap operas

And the writer Paul Abbott (Clocking Off, Linda Green, State of Play - who started out as a Corrie scriptwriter) will conduct a masterclass on writing for television.

Entrepreneurially-minded delegates may be tempted by a session entitled The Money Shot: Feel Your Profits Rising, which is devoted to the adult television channels which now generate some 500m a year in Britain.

Sex and The City
Sex and The City helped boost HBO's reputation
But for outsiders the most newsworthy sessions are likely to be those featuring some of television's biggest hitters.

Chris Albrecht is chief executive of HBO, the US cable channel which, with programmes like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under has transformed our image of American TV.

Albrecht is promising to tell us how he did it - and since he started out as a stand-up comic his speech could be more entertaining than the average speak-your-weight presentation.

Greg Dyke is due in town as well, to be interviewed by journalist and broadcaster David Aaronovitch. Can Aaronovitch tempt him to pass judgement on the Hutton inquiry and the damage it may have done to the BBC's reputation? We should find out on Sunday morning.

And Tony Ball, chief executive of BSkyB, gives the festival's keynote MacTaggart Lecture on Friday evening.

Linda Green stars Jamie Theakston and Liza Maxwell
The man behind Linda Green will be giving his tips
The MacTaggart can prove a thrilling occasion. Ball's ultimate boss, Rupert Murdoch, used his MacTaggart in 1989 to launch a withering onslaught on the protectionism and narrow-mindedness of British television - just as the fledgling Sky was poised to upset the traditional order.

Today Sky is a huge and hugely successful company and Ball, its boss, takes home more than 7m a year. So he could be forgiven if his MacTaggart is a touch self-congratulatory.

But his listeners will want to know where Sky goes from here - because where Sky goes the rest of British television may follow.

Oh, and they may be interested in where Ball thinks he himself is going next. It's a standing joke in the television industry that the MacTaggart lecture is often a disguised job application.

The year after Greg Dyke gave the lecture he became director-general of the BBC; within months of delivering his speech, ITV director of programmes David Liddiment was moving on.

Perhaps Tony Ball too is thinking of conquering new galaxies.

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