Media: Real-life TV comes to the Festival

This has been the year of factual television, and Edinburgh's offerings reflect the trend.
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The Independent Culture
At first glance the programme for the Edinburgh Television Festival looks like an elaborate and over-long publicity stunt.

Including a session on the media and its reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales so close to the anniversary of the death itself was clearly too tempting for the organisers to resist.

Then there is Louise Woodward. Her insight into the televising of trials may be a bit biased, but, again, she will generate headlines on a slow August bank holiday.

The television festival has something of a tradition of such stunts. The James McTaggart Lecture kicks the whole thing off and this year's speaker, Peter Bazalgette, knows what he has to do: "It doesn't matter [what you say] so long as you come up with the one line that gets quoted in all the broadsheets on the Saturday morning. As in `John Birt is a Dalek' [Dennis Potter]; or `British television is run by middle-class, middle-aged men in suits' [Janet Street Porter]. Never mind the argument - get the catch-phrase."

But the sessions on Diana and on the notorious nanny may have a greater resonance. They illustrate the degree to which the festival organisers this year see their role as rehashing the great media issues of the year. And as so many news stories tend to have a media angle, non-media stories can also be re-covered by the festival.

The Diana and Woodward sessions illustrate the other great trend of the television year: the triumph of the real world in peak time.

"It's been the year of factual programming," says Ruth Pitt, head of documentaries at Granada and chair of the festival, in her programme introduction. "Those of us who make documentaries and features still can't believe that after years in the scheduling wilderness, we've finally found ourselves being voted runners-up to Coronation Street and EastEnders in the popularity stakes."

Last week's appointment of Tim Gardam as programming director of Channel 4 underlines just how big a year it has been for factual television. Gardam developed Channel 5's news, and before that worked on Newsnight and Panorama.

He joins Steve Hewlett, incoming director of programmes at Carlton, as an executive who has made it to the top through the factual route.

Despite the television events of Diana and the nanny, the big factual story of the year was the rise of the so-called soap-doc. And soap-docs are well represented at Edinburgh.

The Friday Night Armistice satirical sketch show lampooned the rise of the soap-doc last year by showing a supposed fly-on-the-wall documentary about a production company making a fly-on-the-wall.

Well, never let it be said that the television industry understands satire. One of the first sessions of the weekend will be devoted to the craft of making a fly-on-the-wall, while the session itself is being filmed by the festival's own fly-on-the-wall - a crew will follow delegates around for the whole weekend, or until it disappears up its own fundament, whichever comes first.

In a separate seminar delegates can watch a debate about the need for honesty in factual programming. The session is an obvious reaction to the scandal of the Carlton documentary The Connection, which was proved to be a fake, and to the numerous innuendoes about the reality of other popular soap-documentaries such as Rogue Males, Driving School and Clampers. Hewlett will speak - presumably to begin the task of restoring Carlton's credibility.

Then there is another seminar in which the "real people" who star in soap-docs discuss how the experience has affected their lives.

The other big story of the year - the changes to television news - is also getting an airing, though no one should expect Richard Sambrook, the BBC's head of newsgathering, to tell us what the programme strategy review will contain. Nor is another participant, Steve Anderson, the ITV head of factual, likely to come clean about where News at Ten will end up next year.

The number of sessions devoted to news stories this year raises the question of what the festival is for. It could be accused of being reactive, providing a forum to discuss last year rather than to look forward.

To be fair, there are sessions on future developments, such as Manchester United Television and the digital revolution. But with sessions titles like "TV is Boring"; "How to Cope with Life in TV" and "TV's Nickers" - a session on idea stealing - on top of the reheated scandals of the year, it is difficult to escape the notion that that there is a kind of malaise affecting the industry.

Such malaise is supposed to rest on the insecurity people feel in their jobs, the rubbishing of standards and worries about digital. In fact, since last year's festival British TV has produced the dramas Holding On by Tony Marchant, and Tom Jones; the documentaries The Nazis: A Warning From History and Peter Taylor's Provos. British comedy gave us I'm Alan Partridge and Goodness Gracious Me. It is impossible to believe these could have been produced anywhere else.

There may be plenty to worry about for the future of British television and certainly little of that future is being discussed at Edinburgh. But on the evidence of the past year, it is too early to talk of a malaise.