MEDIA: Controversy tempers impact of Eyre’s keynote speech

I’ve returned from this week’s Edinburgh Television Festival with a firm belief that its handling of PR has been poor and needs rethinking.

I’ve returned from this week’s Edinburgh Television Festival with a

firm belief that its handling of PR has been poor and needs


This is the TV industry’s big regular conference, and its strength is

that it traditionally attracts a volatile mix of both the bosses and

ambitious researchers and producers. For newspapers, the festival is

traditionally a rich source of stories during a slow period.

Edinburgh is the place where media figures ranging from Rupert Murdoch

and Sir John Birt to the late Dennis Potter and Janet Street-Porter have

made big splashy speeches, which set tongues wagging. This year, it was

the turn of Richard Eyre, chief executive of the ITV network, to make

the opening keynote MacTaggart lecture.

Eyre is the leader of a powerful team which has made huge changes in the

past year: abolishing News at Ten, reinventing mass appeal programming

with Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and hitting ambitious targets to

boost prime time audience share. A runner-up for the director

generalship of the BBC, but young enough to be considered after Greg

Dyke has gone, Eyre is an impressive man with a manner so persuasive he

has even managed to contain revolt by the advertising community.

Given the platform, he controversially asserted - playing to ITV’s self

interest - that public service television is dead and that detailed

content regulation of all the commercial channels is virtually a thing

of the past.

And his conviction that if everyone strives to make programming they are

proud of we can be saved from wall-to-wall junk makes my hair stand on

end - this at a time when a niche channel is running a poster campaign

advising that ’If you’re poor and ugly, you might as well cut off your


Eyre also claimed the BBC could reorient itself by abandoning its

reliance on audience share ratings, which means competing head-to-head

with ITV, and substitute a less demanding measure of audience reach.

Yet he was disappointed with the way his speech received virtually no

coverage in the papers, or on the BBC, the next day. The reason is


There used to be a straightforward embargo placed on the MacTaggart

until several hours before it was made. That ended last year. This year,

the main points of the speech turned up in the Times and the Guardian a

day early. With the Guardian paying a handsome sum to sponsor the

festival, it is bound to expect value for money and access to key


The result was to diminish the event, reduce debate, and erode the value

of the festival itself. It’s not right that other newspapers or a key

programme such as Today feel excluded, honour bound to ignore such an

important speech. This should be sorted out.

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