The Media Column: Television and the art of switching channels

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The Independent Online

When a politician "crosses the floor", leaving her party and joining another, she will invariably have one of two stories ready. The first (and most common) is that her original party has, in some way, "left" her, has changed out of recognition and become something unpleasant. The second (rarer) narrative is that she herself has been on a journey and, over time, has come to see that both she and her first party were terribly wrong. Either way, there has to be an explanation. You can't just suddenly move from arguing one viewpoint with vehemence and eloquence, to espousing the opposite with equal certainty.

But you can if you are a television executive. Can and must. And nobody thinks it at all strange, though they may find it funny. This week's edition of Broadcast, the trade magazine for transmitting folk, carries a letter so delicious that the story is also the front-page lead. It is from the new Channel 4 chief executive Mark Thompson, the man who – until last Christmas – was Greg Dyke's number two at the Corporation.

The two organisations are not getting on very well at the moment. Dyke's lot have been frustrated by the Government's refusal to licence their proposed BBC 3 yoof digital channel. Until recently, Channel 4 supported the BBC's application on the basis that it would be good for digital take-up all round. And then, with Thompson about to replace outgoing boss Michael Jackson, Channel 4's line suddenly changed. BBC 3, it was discovered, was actually bad for the industry as a whole. (A note here for the ingenue: it is a feature of special pleading by television to the Government that executives never put their cases solely in terms of what is good for their own organisation, but rather in terms of what is good for the industry. The two things are to be regarded as naturally synonymous.)

The shift angered Greg who, in a wounding speech at the ICA, accused Channel 4 of being precious. Thompson's new mob, he argued, would not be unduly hurt by BBC 3 taking ad revenue from their own E4, because Channel 4 was "awash with money". Not so, replied Thompson in the Broadcast letter. In fact it was the BBC that was, if not sitting in a lake of cash, at least bubbling away in a "Jacuzzi" of dosh. This slightly disgusting image notwithstanding, Thompson added that he thought it was both "reasonable and publicly desirable" that the BBC should offer new channels, but that it was "also reasonable" for Channel 4 and others to "raise questions about the financial consequences".

What is genuinely hilarious about this is that Thompson was himself the primary architect of the BBC digital proposals. He is BBC 3's dad and it is his own little baby that he now thinks it "reasonable" for Channel 4 to try and have strangled. Apparently he will explain how he can bear the death rattle when he delivers the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August. I would pay good money to see that.

In the old days this sort of thing didn't used to happen. BBC men stayed BBC men for their whole working lives, moving ever upward – through more constricted channels – from researcher to director general. And the same was true in ITV. This all ended when Michael Grade went from LWT to the Beeb in the mid-Eighties, and today everybody gets to work for everybody else. Greg Dyke, who once bid the BBC out of live soccer when at ITV, ends up complaining about his loss of sport; David Liddiment, who argued hard for "popular entertainment" while at the BBC, becomes head honcho at ITV and moans about there being too much of it on BBC 1.

These necessary reversals cause some people more difficulty than others. In Mark Thompson's biography it says, "He was educated by Jesuits at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire and got a first in English at Oxford." I give BBC 3 no chance.

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