British TV Elite Gather With Scores To Settle

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Sparks predicted at the heavyweight Royal Television Society International Conference.

LONDON -- British TV types don't go in for celebrity deathmatch duels or Charlie Sheen-style roastings when they want to attack the competition. When British TV execs want to slide a lethal stiletto into an opponent, they wait until the Royal Television Society's elite biennial conference to deliver ice-cold revenge in style.

This year's three-day conference -- opening Wednesday Sept 14th beneath the dreaming spires of Cambridge University's King's College (alma mater to Elizabeth I's henchman Francis Walsingham and the economist John Maynard Keynes) promises a veritable feast of score-settling.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will be first off the blocks, offering an outline of what is expected to be a new roadmap of media-ownership in the U.K. -- potentially restricting foreign companies like News Corp. from increasing their market share here.

Hunt spent much of the past year as the quasi-judicial government official overseeing News Corp.'s $12 billion bid for BSkyB, and came within days of agreeing what would have been one of the most unpopular deals in British media history.

It was finally dropped in July when the shockwaves from the phone-hacking scandal forced News Corp to walk away from the cherished acquisition at the 11th hour.

Now Hunt is expected to use the RTS conference opening keynote to open up new discussions on limiting media ownership in the UK -- which some see as a rearguard attempt to prevent News Corp. from tabling the bid again.

BSkyB COO Mike Darcey will also take to the podium at Cambridge, speaking publicly for the first time since the bid spectacularly collapsed.

Sky has maintained a "business as usual" attitude following the abandoned takeover -- which would have seen it become fully part of News Corp. Behind the public façade, however, there is huge disappointment among senior BSkyB executives that the deal was knocked down, sending Sky's share price crashing down to earth in the process.

If, as analysts had predicted, the takeover had gone ahead, pricing BSkyB at between $15 and  $17 per share, fuelled by their share option bonuses, senior managers in the business would have been "not actually as rich as Croesius, but definitely in the ball park," according to one executive.

BBC director general Mark Thompson will also likely weigh in on the wider lessons of the phone-hacking scandal, as well as the future for the BBC in a world where Sky remains an 800-pound gorilla.

Still smarting from James Murdoch's stunning critique on a "bloated" BBC two years ago -- which resulted in major cutbacks at the pubcaster and pressure on its funding -- Thompson has waited a long time for an opportunity to get even.

Elsewhere at the RTS Conference, Discovery boss David Zaslav will deliver the international keynote of the two-day conference, talking-up the role of programming in the multi-platform age and urging control of intellectual property and rights.

And WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell will deliberate on how advertisers can target consumers as never before, faced with a plethora of converging media opportunities and platforms.

But the RTS Cambridge Conference is much more about playing to the home crowd than pondering the success of outsiders. So the next Communications bill, building successful British production companies and a good deal of mulling the future of terrestrial television will form the bulk of the dialog on the conference floor.

Chris Patten, the new chair of the $8 billion-per-year BBC's oversight committee, the BBC Trust, will close out the first day with a major speech on the BBC's future role, scope and policy. Tactfully, he won't be expected to share a platform with the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who told Cambridge delegates at his last address that the BBC Trust would have to be scrapped because it "wasn't working."

But you can be sure that when Patten takes to the podium, like so many of his fellow speakers, he will have a handful of scores to settle.

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