ITV's entertaining interpretation of public service TV

without comments

Let me get this straight. Peter Fincham, director of television at ITV, believes entertainment programmes like the X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent should be more clearly defined as ‘public service’, so that they can become better supported by the state – if necessary to the detriment of news, current affairs and children’s programmes.

If I’ve understood the speech he gave to the Edinburgh TV festival on Friday correctly, he is arguing that big-budget high entertainment is the preserve of old broadcasters like ITV. Only these 20th century broadcasting giants can deliver both the programme quality and the bums on seats that provide a shared national experience, he suggests. The market does not – cannot – make these kinds of programmes for broad audiences. As such, ITV should be released from its other onerous public service commitments so that it can focus on these types of programmes. ‘Keep TV popular’ is Fincham’s mantra.

Hogwash. Or in the words of the London mayor, piffle. Fincham’s argument falls down on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start.

The market, bless it, does provide these sorts of programmes and will provide them whether or not ITV exists to commission / make them. Indeed if the market was left to its own devices there is a good chance many TV channels would make these programmes almost exclusively (which is no doubt one of Fincham’s worries).

More astonishing is Fincham’s attack on the state – on the “television that is understood by regulators, consultants, strategists and media commentators”. Not only is it far too easy to cast OFCOM and the DCMS as the villains of the piece, it’s also completely misleading. If anything, OFCOM has been one of ITV’s biggest cheerleaders. Listen to it arguing that ITV should be released from its commitments to regional news and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a party political broadcast for the third channel. It is not OFCOM’s fault that ITV has lost viewers in droves, nor that ITV made such a terrible hash of its new media strategy (remember Friends Reunited?).

As for Fincham’s apparent vision – for a channel that is subsidised to make commercial entertainment, has its profits protected from the stiff wind of competition, and has almost no other programming obligations. Can you think of any country in the world where this happens? The only parallel I can think of is the Roman amphitheatre (which some of the programmes cited by Fincham bear more than a passing resemblance to).

To whose benefit is this vision? To the publics? It seems as though the public have already made their view clear, by deserting ITV to entertain themselves in other ways. No, the vision seems only to benefit established broadcasters, most notably ITV.

Only an industry like television, that has enjoyed such a prolonged golden age, could be so myopic as to think that, purely due to its legacy, it should be such a major recipient of state support. And, that the support should come without any strings attached.

Written by Martin Moore

August 26th, 2008 at 2:02 pm

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