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Complacent TV industry will lose out to internet, says Kevin Spacey

Actor uses MacTaggart lecture to warn of exodus of creative talent to the web

The Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey today told the British television industry that he was “disappointed” by its lack of ambition and warned that  it was at risk of losing its young creative talent to the internet.

“Things are changing and changing fast. Kids aren’t growing up with a sense of television as the aspirational place for their ideas,” Spacey told an audience of television executives in Edinburgh.

The actor spoke out after the success of his Internet TV series House of Cards which was streamed online by Netflix and is nominated for nine awards at next month’s Emmys.

Delivering the prestigious William MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Spacey said: “I wonder if you are – as I am – disappointed that this medium doesn’t reach for the highest of excellence as much as it should, or could?” He said: “I’m disappointed. Disappointed this industry doesn’t do more to support new talent.”

Spacey is the first actor to deliver the MacTaggart lecture, which has previously been given by such television industry luminaries as Rupert Murdoch, Greg Dyke, John Birt and Jeremy Paxman.

He said the House of Cards project had been taken to all the major broadcasting networks but Netflix was the only one which said “we don’t need you to do a pilot.”

He said that the audience response to the series, watching one episode after another online, refuted the notion that the internet was not a home for long-form content. “If someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn’t that show an incredible attention span?”

Kevin Spacey (left) in House of Cards

But he said that television networks had expressed fear that viewers would turn off House of Cards because a dog is killed in an early scene – a misjudgement of the audience which demonstrated that television was over cautious. “We know what works and the only thing we don’t know is why it’s so difficult to find executives with the fortitude, the wisdom and the balls to do it.”

The television industry was at risk of becoming complacent, said Spacey, who has lived in the United Kingdom for the past ten years. “Careers are made, salaries increase, and people have reputations and track records to protect. The end result is a shift toward conservatism, away from risk-taking.”

As a result, young creative talent was being shut out and was likely to look for other outlets for its work. “Until now, those of us in the television and film business have been able to wait for the talent to finds us,” he said. “We had the keys to the kingdom and folks needed to bring us their stories if they wanted to find a route to an audience.” But young people today see “the incredible diversity of entertainment, stories and engagement that they can find online” and they “probably don’t know which network it originally aired on”.

Spacey, 54, the artistic director of the Old Vic theatre in London, illustrated his point by referencing a comment by film director Sir David Lean, who warned an audience at the American Film Institute that the movie industry was going to lose its talent to a rival platform: “We’re going to go down and down and down and lose it all to television. Television is going to take over.”

The American Beauty actor said that television now needed to “send the elevator back down” to give young creatives an entry to the business. “We just have to make sure the floors we live on are not so high that we can no longer hear the voices of those who want to get on and take a ride up to our level,” he said.