Edinburgh TV fest tunes in for sex, violence, scandals

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Sex, lies and videotape dominated the agenda for several thousand producers, broadcasters and executives as this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival wound down to a close Sunday.

A packed panel titled "Guilty Pleasures" heard that that onscreen violence was a far bigger problem than was consensual sex on television, and with the easy availability of sex on the Internet, restrictions on television standards should be relaxed.

"I don't think that anybody has ever been permanently damaged by seeing sex on television, but when I switch on an ITV drama at 9 p.m., I can be exposed to very grisly and sickening scenes that are really gory," said Boyd Hilton, TV editor of celebrity magazine Heat.

But John Whittingdale, politician and Conservative party chair of the all-party Culture Media and Sport Committee of Members of Parliament, said that the existing regulations were in place to protect viewers from offense.

"I have no problem with adults choosing to watch what they want, but a large number of the people I represent are deeply offended," he said.

Whittingdale said he drew a significant distinction between what could be aired on the five main channels and content available on the range of digital television webs.

"I would distinguish between the public service channels and commercial channels, which survive by providing what people want to watch. Public service broadcasting is different."

On the matters of scandals that have dogged the industry this past year, BBC1 controller Peter Fincham admitted that the controversial RDF-produced royal documentary "A Year With the Queen" might never reach BBC screens — despite a huge editorial commitment by the pubcaster — because of the firestorm about faked promotional scenes involving the queen.

In a one-on-one interview, Fincham said he was "hopeful" that the documentary would eventually air, but could not give any firm commitments.

A trailer for the show aired for journalists and overseas buyers purported to show the monarch storming out of a photo shoot with Annie Liebovitz.

"I certainly hope we will screen the series. A lot of talking is going on in the background," Fincham told a packed conference hall.

"I can't say whether or not the Queen will see it before it goes out because I don't know. There is nothing definite at all (I can say on that). … It's complicated."

Buckingham Palace lawyers Farrar & Co. are understood to have written to producers RDF Media warning with complaints about the documentary, according to sources.

But the extent to which the BBC1 head has been shaken by the scale of the outcry was evident as Fincham accepted the Channel of Year award for BBC1, when he paid tribute to his BBC bosses.

"I have some fantastic bosses, and I've needed that recently," he said, adding that he "hoped" that he could remain in his job. BBC director of vision Jana Bennett also appeared to be under strain during a panel on trust in television, admitting that the BBC had "made mistakes."

The conference also provided a stage for much soul-searching on the subject of television standards and multiple calls for a re-examination of the higher purpose of television, after a year that has seen faked phone call scandals threaten to destroy trust in the business.

Award-winning author Lionel Shriver accused British broadcasters of failing audiences by patronizing them with a diet of cruel game shows, diet programs and lifestyle programming. "Do not underestimate your audience," she warned the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and Five.

The author of "We Need to Talk About Kevin" also attacked prolonged and sentimental news coverage of tragic events like the death of Princess Diana and the kidnapping of 4-year-old Briton Madeleine McCann.

"These stories consume airtime that is disproportionate to their social significance. Television is fascinated by these subjects not because they are of real social impact, but because they provide a good story," she said.

A vision of television of the future was provided by Google's chief Internet evangelist and senior vp Vint Cerf.

"I can't help but believe that stored downloards will be the way people increasingly use the Internet to choose and view entertainment," Cerf said, though he argued that traditional television is set to face "more opportunities than risks" from the Internet.
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