Podium: Nobody wants to buy British TV

A short extract from the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, given in Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture
LET'S START by examining one of the great complacencies of our age: the way we still claim that our TV is the best in the world. What does it mean? Where's the evidence? Have you noticed how, when it comes to the World Cup, we always have the best goal-keeper in the world as well? But we haven't won the World Cup for 32 years. What I want to know is, if we have the best TV in the world why doesn't more of the world want to buy it? The dominant language of world media is English. We are recognised as a pre-eminently creative country. We claim that we sell more TV than any country other than the US. And yet we have a large imbalance of payments in TV shows. We buy in far more than we sell.

We are one of only two countries in the world with a positive balance of trade in intellectual property (the other, of course, is the US). So, comparatively, our television industry performs far, far worse than others in the creative sector. While our new channels suck in imports, we're not making comparable sales to the many new channels opening up abroad. Why not? Because while they'll buy our factual material (mating orang utans, etc) we've never left base one when it comes to mass entertainment - drama and sitcoms. "Ah," say the spin doctors of the ancien regime, "but we do have the best TV in the world in the sense that it most satisfies the domestic audience". Nice try. However, it butters no parsnips for me. In multi-channel homes Britain's traditional terrestrial channels are not faring too well. Typically cable and satellite now take a third of all viewers in multi-channel homes; getting on for half when it comes to children. And the new channels, of course, run many foreign imports.

So the best TV in the world doesn't do quite so well with its own audience when faced with a bit of competition, does it? Competition that's operating on much lower overall budgets, by the way. When you add multi-entertainment houses with games consoles, the Internet and so on, the picture is even more bleak. The Henley Centre tells us that of those using the Internet, half say that what they would have been doing otherwise was watching telly.

When you have a scarce number of channels, you need to regulate content as well as competition issues. When you have plenty of channels regulation of content quality - particularly the sort of snooty regulation we've had in Britain - is simply not possible. Viewers choose what they want to see; it's not chosen for them.

We need the Government to clear away all this undergrowth because from now on the audiences will decide what's quality and what isn't. We will police ourselves.

Change is inevitable, as the audience takes the whip hand. Change earlier rather than later will benefit viewers. It will also benefit people as subscribing members of a rapidly growing, creative economy. Let me repeat some modest proposals to further the process:

1. abolish the Broadcasting Standards Commission and curtail the ITC's responsibility for content.

2. Remove the public service remit of most of the commercial terrestrial channels.

3. Phase out ITV companies' licence bid payments and divest the ITV licensees of their production arms (with the exception of news).

4. Create a real market in distribution by giving creators control over their product.

5. Define the BBC's public service role. Establish a long-term policy to preserve and strengthen it.

6. Privatise BBC world-wide.

None of these proposals is intended to second-guess exactly how or whether convergence will take place. They're designed to get the market ready for whatever happens. But what chance is there of this happening? A fat chance, do I hear you say? Well, all of this will happen in the next 20 years simply because of the force of change in our industry; in fact, probably in the next 10.

But will it happen sooner, so that we become masters and not victims of the market? Not unless New Labour develop policies to match their fine words. Not if the ancien regime has anything to do with it (did you notice how many of its bosses experienced Damascene conversions to New Labour?) Not if media correspondents continue slavishly to suck up to their masters rather than question the status quo (the TV correspondents are the worst - merely wheeled out to puff their employers' new digital channels).

Not, in other words, if we always keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse. But we have a great opportunity to get it right. Instead of talking about television versus the people, we could return to Edinburgh next year to talk about television and the people.