K.J. Yossman and Naman Ramachandran
Fri, 26 August 2022 at 8:54 pm
There was a sense of excitement and, dare it be said, even joy permeating the first in-person Edinburgh International TV Festival since 2019, which came to a close on Friday. Panels were packed, dinners were back and even a garbage collection strike and wet weather couldn’t put a dampener on proceedings as producers, commissioners, executives and talent reunited under one roof to take stock of the industry. (Yes, the pandemic almost felt like a distant memory.) It’s been a turbulent few years and signs suggest the ride isn’t over yet. This year’s festival was a chance to take stock, reconnect and look forward.
Below are Variety’s top takeaways from the three-day festival:
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1. Make Content Local, But Not Parochial
Local content is big business and the U.S. streamers are committed to projects that reflect the countries they’re operating in. “What we saw when we launched globally in 2016 was all our audiences were crying out for local content,” said Amazon Studios U.K. boss Georgia Brown. “They loved all the incredible U.S. stuff we were producing but they really wanted their own culture and talent reflected back on screen. So our strategy in that sense hasn’t shifted and won’t shift.”
Brown’s comments were echoed by Johanna Devereaux, Disney+’s director of scripted content for EMEA, but she warned it was important to balance authentic British content with global appeal. “Our catchphrase is always ‘local not parochial,’” said Devereaux. “It’s really important that it does feel authentically British but not inward-looking.
2. Disability: Do Better
Following last year’s hard-hitting MacTaggart lecture from “Help” writer Jack Thorne, who spoke passionately about the lack of disabled representation on screen and behind the scenes, there was certainly more awareness of disability this year, with one senior executive privately admitting he hadn’t given disabled access much thought until Thorne’s lecture.
Rose Ayling Ellis, who was the first deaf person to appear on (and win) “Strictly Come Dancing,” kept the conversation going with her Alternative MacTaggert address, in which she said: “I do feel a responsibility to make this speech comfortable and nice for you to hear. But my reality isn’t always nice. It is not nice when my access is compromised. It is not nice to realize my presence is a token. It is not nice when my favorite TV shows don’t have subtitles. It is not nice to feel frustrated and unheard.”
The conference itself was fully accessible, with British Sign Language interpreters and closed captions at every panel and talk, step-free access, wheelchair spaces and quiet zones. Even the festival’s app was screen reader accessible. And yet, despite all this apparent progress, disability remains a joke. During the BBC’s panel, BBC Three controller Fiona Campbell introduced a clip from what she described as a “brilliant” upcoming comedy drama, “Wrecked.” The short clip included a punchline about diabetes, prompting scattered laughter from the audience, showing that while there might be more awareness around disability, there’s still plenty of room for education
3. Reboots, Reboots, Reboots
The topic of reboots cropped up repeatedly, since both streamers and traditional broadcasters are about to launch a slew of shows based on recycled IP including ITV’s “Big Brother,” Paramount+’s “Grease,” Disney+’s “The Full Monty,” Amazon Prime Video’s “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” Sky’s “Game of Thrones” spin-off “House of the Dragon” and the BBC’s just-announced “Gladiators” revival.
“It’s not a coincidence that this rise of franchise and known IP corresponded with the explosion of choice in the non-linear environment,” said Paramount+ chief David Nevins. “Those two things happened simultaneously; that is the Darwinian ecosystem of television. With so many choices, IP helps. But there’s a lot of different ways to use it.” ITV managing director Kevin Lygo was also matter-of-fact about the appeal of IP, saying: “It will drive people to our streaming service, it’s not that big a risk in terms of ‘will the numbers be fine for us?’ It will commercially work.”
Not everyone was so enthusiastic, however, with Channel 4’s chief content officer Ian Katz remarking during a panel: “I do think there is something depressing about this microwave issue in TV, with so many old dishes being reheated.”
4. Let’s Get Political
The stench of politics was in the air throughout the festival, partly thanks to a garbage collectors’ strike in Edinburgh prompted by a dispute with the local council, which meant the city was overflowing with literal trash.
Inside the conference center, ex-BBC anchor Emily Maitlis’ controversial MacTaggart lecture, which divided opinions and set off a war of words with her former employer, stoked fears about government interference in journalism (promptly denied by the BBC) and took aim at the ongoing Conservative leadership competition, which she described as a “power vacuum circus.” “Succession” star Brian Cox, who appeared in conversation with Scottish culture secretary Angus Robertson, also took the opportunity to have a jab at Westminster, calling for Scottish independence and describing the Boris Johnson administration as “absolutely appalling.” Meanwhile David Nevins said the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade was ripe for commentary on screen. “I’m interested to see what our best writers have to say about it,” he told the Edinburgh audience. “I think it makes for interesting television.” He also said the upcoming season of “Billions” would turn its eye to Russian oligarchs, currently the focus of global interest following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
5. Comedy is Serious Business
Channel 4’s Katz revealed that the broadcaster has earmarked £100 million to invest in comedy, drama and reality formats over the next three years. During the festival, there was a spate of comedy commission announcements including the BBC’s “Queen of Oz,” with Catherine Tate; “Undoing Martin Parker” from BAFTA-winning writers Paul Coleman and Sian Gibson; a fourth season of “Man Like Mobeen”; a fifth season of “Brassic” and seven new comedy shorts; and Diane Morgan’s “Cunk on Earth,” the further adventures of her popular character Philomena Cunk, for BBC Two. “When you get comedy right, it can last a very long time,” Lygo explained during the ITV panel, pointing to “The Inbetweeners” as an example.
But one comedy commissioner admitted to Variety that comedies are the hardest sell internationally as they are U.K. culture-specific and in many cases they have to be, because of public service broadcaster “Britishness” remits.
6. Cost of Living
The inflation crisis came up regularly, both on screen and behind the screen. “I know it’s more and more challenging, getting crews and getting casts,” said Polly Hill, head of drama at ITV, while Brian Cox, previewing an upcoming Channel 5 documentary he is fronting about people’s relationship with money, called on Prime Ministerial candidate and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak to listen to people’s financial woes. Amazon’s Brown and Dan Grabiner, meanwhile, demurred when asked about the streamer’s price rises, saying they were there to speak for the studio and not the platform.
Despite the economic doom and gloom, the overwhelming message was that neither the streamers nor the broadcasters are planning on commissioning less, although they may be more bullish about the projects they greenlight. “I think it’s a trend we’ll probably see in the industry in the next few years as things play out with the economy. It is that thing about making content work harder for our audiences,” said Brown. “How do you expand beyond those four walls a TV show or a movie and how do you add that extra value to a customer at the end?”
As one high-level exec told Variety, there’s certainly more work out there, although everybody’s making less money.
7. Duty of Care
With unscripted shows going through a boom moment, from documentaries to entertainment shows, duty of care has become an increasingly important concept when offering up individuals – and their stories – for public consumption. “If you look back even a few years the term ‘duty of care’ was hardly used. Now it’s on everyone’s lips,” said ITV’s Lygo.
For Banijay, which is known for unscripted formats including “Big Brother” and “Masterchef,” duty of care is key to avoid tragedies such as those that have afflicted other companies’ shows. “We’re constantly reviewing our duty of care guidelines,” said Green. “It’s making sure that when you do your casting you’re asking the right questions and you’re prepared to say no to people.”
Duty of care is equally if not more important when it comes to true crime, where victims and their families may be traumatized by their experiences. “The True Crimewave” panel invited commissioners and producers to discuss the subject along with campaigner Dr Sara Payne, whose 6-year-old daughter Sarah was murdered in 2000 by a sex offender, while Fozia Khan, Amazon Studios development executive lead for unscripted, also said the streamer takes duty of care “extremely seriously” when working on true crime projects.
8. Sugar Rush
What’s better than candy? Free candy. Which is exactly why the bright minds at Sky set up a a pick and mix stand gratis in their booth, which was an immediate hit. (For those not familiar with the concept, a pick and mix stand is stacked tubs of individual candies you can scoop out and mix in a paper bag). Lines for cola bottles, strawberry jellies, Flying Saucers and more regularly snaked through the Sky Arts space and when the stand was briefly moved around a corner to make way for a live broadcast, there was mild panic. “We had people coming up going, ‘Where’s the pick and mix?’” said Sam Farley, head of events at Sky. With little free swag on offer from other brands (good from a sustainability stand point, at least), perhaps the candy tasted even sweeter.
(Pictured above: Rose Ayling-Ellis)