Ian Burrell: British TV looks into the future and gets ready to bang its own drum

Media Studies: ‘The tectonic changes will be around the migration of viewers to mobile and broadband’

Accomplished as Richard Desmond might be on the drum kit, his rhythmic assault on the skins at a college bar in Cambridge on Thursday is unlikely to be the enduring memory of the week for the television industry.

The highlights in TV over the next five days will not be found in the Critic’s Choice columns but at the Royal Television Society’s convention, also  in Cambridge, and at the House of Commons where the Public Accounts Committee will today further examine the BBC’s shocking largesse in executive pay-offs. The corporation can expect a thrashing more violent than even the most energetic of the Channel 5 owner’s drum solos.

The RTS convention has set itself the ambitious target of trying to predict what will happen to the medium we now call television over the coming decade. The exercise is all the more interesting for having been attempted in 2003 when Greg Dyke was in the chair.

Back then, delegates came up with some prophetic notions, not least the idea that BT might, by 2013, be negotiating for broadcast rights for the Premier League. The school of 2003 was also right to say that terrestrial channels would see their audience share evaporate (it has, by some 25  per cent), although they didn’t realise how the big broadcasters would claw back viewers through portfolios of digital channels.

This year’s RTS chair is the Channel 4 chief executive David Abraham who, along with Channel 4 News host Jon Snow, will ask delegates to pick up iPads and suggest how the TV landscape will look in 2023.

Abraham has an agenda here. Back in 2003, nobody factored in the impact of internet-based television; YouTube wouldn’t be founded for another two years, and Netflix was a DVD supplier with no foothold in the UK. But in 2013, all the momentum is with broadband-supplied video content. The Channel 4 boss knows this. “What are the tectonic changes for the next 10 years? Well, it’s clearly going to be around the migration of viewers towards short form [video], mobile and broadband,” he told me last week.

The question is how rapidly that transformation occurs. Abraham will ask the Cambridge delegates whether they believe the expansion of broadband viewing will grow from the current 3 per cent to a modest 20 per cent over the next decade – or whether there will be a more dramatic shift and the majority of our viewing will be on phones, tablets and yet-to-be-invented mobile devices. In 2003, the RTS audience favoured the most doom-laden of predictions: the death of linear (scheduled) TV. They overstated that. If similarly radical views are expressed this year on the demise of traditional viewing then Abraham will hope that the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, and the Ofcom chief executive, Ed Richards, (both guests at the event) are listening.

The context is the Government’s desire to allocate greater spectrum to mobile operators and yet still require public service broadcasters (PSBs), such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, to invest in high-quality programmes. The PSBs are worried by this. Their channels enjoy a privileged position at the top of the electronic programme guide – but will many of us use that route when watching shows on mobiles?

At Cambridge, the traditional TV executives will have a chance to question their challengers, people such as BT’s Marc Watson, Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global, and Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos – to find out how much of a threat they are. Netflix has already alarmed broadcasters with the success of House of Cards. And some are still smarting over comments by that show’s star Kevin Spacey last month when he identified a new golden age in televised drama but referenced only American content.

British television wants to bang its own drum. Burnley dramatist Paul Abbott will tell the RTS audience how he is taking British ideas (such as Shameless) to America. Film4’s Tessa Ross will describe how film-industry figures such as Danny Boyle are anxious to work in TV and how British talent such as director Steve McQueen (already touted for an Oscar with the forthcoming 12 Years a Slave) can be propelled to global prominence.

Richard Desmond will also be giving his first public address – in an interview with Jeff Randall – on his three years in charge of Channel 5. Judging from his appearance at the Leveson inquiry, when the Daily Express owner took a personal swipe at press rival Paul Dacre (“the fat butcher”), Abraham’s channel should be prepared for snide remarks.

So far the drummer for charity band The RD Crusaders has restricted his abuse to musical rivals in television. Endemol chairman Tim Hincks plays in a rock band with Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News and Google’s Peter Barron. “Desmond has said to me that they don’t know how to keep time,” says Abraham. The TV industry will be offering up many more home truths this week.

Great chance for a BBC substitution

Who remembers Celina Hinchcliffe presenting Match of the Day? I can’t say I saw it but she stood in for Gary Lineker back in 2005 and became the first female host of the BBC’s flagship football show.Football has moved on a lot since then. Anyone who goes to games regularly will testify to the obvious growth in numbers of female fans. But, despite commentary from Jacqui Oatley and some guest presenting from Gabby Logan, MotD is a men’s club.

It’s a tough one for the BBC – the practice of hiring former Premier League players as pundits and presenters is not merely fashionable but tried and tested. More than ever, viewers demand tactical insight from those who have played at the highest level. There is a feeling that MotD does not have pundits with recent experience of the world’s  top league.

But Alan Hansen’s retirement from the show after 22 years offers an opportunity for the BBC’s head of sport, Barbara Slater. I’m not holding my breath, but after showing the Women’s Euros this summer, will she bring a woman into the MotD mix? Someone like former England captain turned broadcaster Faye White? If Lord Hall is serious about redressing the gender imbalance in front of the camera at the BBC, this would send a strong signal.

Quite a lot of work, actually

Who wants to work for Hugh Grant? Hacked Off, the press reform campaign group, is looking for a new chief operating officer because its chief executive, Brian Cathcart, is going part-time in order to resume work as professor of journalism  at Kingston University.

The COO role – rather grandly titled for a small outfit – will involve managing the group’s campaign and reporting to the board, which includes Grant and the silk Hugh Tomlinson, among others.

“There’s a lot still to be done in terms of implementation of the Leveson recommendations,” says Cathcart. He adds that a professional background in newspapers would be an “asset” but is “not a job requirement”. Given the current inertia around this subject, the successful applicant has much to do.

Salary, Cathcart says, is “for negotiation”.

Twitter: @iburrell

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