Murdoch speech dominates TV fest

Execs still talking as Edinburgh winds down

EDINBURGH -- The fallout from James Murdoch's polarizing MacTaggart speech, the future of the BBC's operations online and the crushing financial impact of the recession on Europe's free-to-air broadcasters were the hot-button issues as this year's Edinburgh Television Festival winds down.

The News Corp. Europe and Asia chairman and CEO's uncompromising attack on the "authoritarianism" of regulators, the "chilling" nature of the BBC and the "creationist" approach of policy makers, has certainly dominated debate, with the BBC forced to defend the impact of its free online news on the commercial market.

Murdoch's cri de coeur in favor of the free market specifically attacked the BBC's online news operations, which he said was effectively an arm of the government that was putting independent online news suppliers out of work.

Some execs described the speech as "predictably self-serving" at a time that the BBC's free online news is a major threat to News Corp.'s plans to charge for access to its online papers.

"There was no thesis, nothing about meeting regulators halfway or dealing with the existing climate, just a rather juvenile argument that markets are good and regulators are bad," said one senior broadcast executive. "In a way it would have been better to have picked one argument rather than a whole diatribe that essentially doesn't leave us with anything substantial."

Although he dismissed some of Murdoch's speech, "The Wire" creator David Simon said that Murdoch was championing investment in journalism at a crucial time.

"I sort of understand where he was trying to go -- where he ended up was slightly to the right of George Orwell's worst nightmare," said Simon, at an event at the parallel Edinburgh Book fair.

"But I think he was trying to say that journalism needs an independent revenue stream, it isn't free, it all costs money and you get what you pay for," said Simon.

It was left to BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons to set the official tone for defending the pubcaster: "We have to be careful not to reduce the whole of broadcasting to some simple economic transactions."

But sparks flew at a festival dinner where Murdoch and BBC business editor Robert Peston were almost involved in a blow-up over the speech, according to spectators.

Elsewhere, the issues of talent payments were high on the agenda, as commercial broadcasters digest 10-20% cuts in their program budgets.

BBC director of vision Jana Bennett came under fire for refusing to disclose BBC talent payments, which she said were a matter of commercial confidentially

"What the BBC is really saying is that the public won't understand why people should be paid so much -- that is an extraordinary argument," said opposition member of Parliament Ed Vaizey.

Channel 4 director of television Kevin Lygo said that the BBC's guaranteed income meant it could push up prices without impunity.

"Up until recently everyone has been on an equal footing, but we've seen the BBC become disproportionately more powerful -- suddenly the market is grotesquely distorted. if the BBC wants to bid for someone they absolutely can, because Peter (Fincham, ITV director of television) and I have less money. The BBC don't understand how disproportionately wealthy they are."

Concluding a festival that has seen attendance numbers down 20% to 25% and offered little in terms of how to guarantee the future of an industry at the crossroads of structural and cyclical change, ITV's Fincham summed up the mood: "Commercial television is a tough, tough business. The biggest challenge this year is to steer this ship through these stormy waters with as little impact on quality as possible."
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