It's managers vs talent on TV tonight

Male, middle-class and mediocre, our television industry is stifling all creativity, says Janet Street-Porter
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The Independent Online
Nowadays, if I want ideas, I don't watch TV. I go to a Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson installation. I spend an hour in a greetings card shop watching what women are buying. I talk to my sister, who works in Sainsburys. I walk or listen to music. Why? Because TV isn't fun anymore and fun is where ideas breed. A terminal blight has hit the British TV industry. This blight is management.

We are at a major turning point in media - British TV can emerge as a mega-player or another interesting extra. For the last four years, I have looked after between pounds 30m and pounds 40m worth of production annually and have felt increasingly that unless we get our business strategy in order, we will never become global players, forever doomed to be part of Rupert Murdoch's global theme park.

The British TV business is the worst performing of all our creative businesses. The British record industry exports nine times as much as we do. One of the reasons that the TV business does a lot worse than the record industry is that although they're both driven by creative talent, the TV industry is disadvantaged because it is better educated and more middle class.

Historically, many of the dynamic ideas that made Britain a cultural force worldwide - from music to fashion to computers - have come from working-class people. Many of the top people in TV management have never worked outside the system in which they started, and some not even for another employer. How can they respond to the pulsating, disparate mass, the hothouse of ideas in a multicultural British society if they all talk in one accent which was polished at the same universities, and all end up shopping at the same delicatessens? No wonder the programmes they commission are all starting to look and feel the same - vets, hospitals, detectives. Can the public tell the difference?

Inside television, it has always been a divided nation. There have always been two groups - people who make the programmes and come up with ideas, and people who manage and regulate the industry. The creative track-record of British television has been fantastic, but can we say the same of our management?

With few notable exceptions, British TV managers have always been "M" people - middle class, middle brow, middle aged and male, Masonic in their tendencies and, not to put too fine a point on it, fairly mediocre. The inefficiencies and failures of British television started at the top, a long time ago, and it is the talent who are now being made to pay the price.

British TV managers, alone in the world's media and entertainment industry, have chosen not to acknowledge that television is talent-driven, and that it can only survive as a creative business. Media and entertainment businesses everywhere else in the world make the machine serve the talent, whereas we make the talent serve the machine.

TV is losing its audience. A recent report found that most 12-year- olds would rather give up their television set than their computer - and it's not difficult to see why. TV needs to innovate now more than ever, and that is exactly what it is not doing.

Vision is often ridiculed by mundane British management. But creative management needs a vision of the future to point the way. You cannot only follow taste - you have to lead it. You have to be bold - you cannot dissolve risk out of the job. Yet this is what BBC and ITV managements are trying to do, relying on strategists, research and planning to help them to understand where to go next. Without great material, they aren't going anywhere. Was Fawlty Towers arrived at by audience research? I fear not.

The BBC must take the lead as it has the most to lose - and to gain. Why can't the BBC aim for 2000 by starting again from scratch and saying - here is what the audience want from us, here is the talent available, let us work out the best way to serve those markets and secure our financing for the future.

Instead, they are taking a 1940s Bugatti, a symbol of excellence in its day, and trying to turn it into a modern car capable of outpacing others on the Autobahn. Channel Four's great strength was to have that opportunity to start from nothing. The BBC's difficulties can only be resolved if they take a similarly year-zero approach.

One other point about one of the most critical imbalances in the industry. I have a good laugh when I read all management's reports about reflecting the audience, catering for minorities, talking to the regions. Because there's a majority they've chosen to ignore within their own ranks - women. Women are so woefully under-represented in TV management that it makes me want to weep. Women write, direct, produce and star in hugely successful entertainment. The two most powerful and influential people in the American TV industry are Oprah Winfrey and Roseanne Barr. They are huge businesses. Here, we have talented businesswomen like Verity Lambert, Linda Agran and Lynda La Plante all making entertainment watched by millions of happy viewers.

But who commissions the comedy and entertainment on British television? Fewer women than you could count on the fingers of one hand. Does managing entertainment require testosterone over and above any other talent? Does understanding what makes a good game-show need a lot of jangling of coins in the pocket and round of golf with the lads?

For this industry to survive, management must have a vision of the role of television. This role can only be achieved through programmes, not processes, balancing immediate profits with the need to invest for the future. There are two huge prizes. First, to revitalise the position of British terrestrial TV. Second, to remove its glass walls and ceilings and remarry management and talent so that together, they can corner the limitless global education and information markets.

If we succeed in releasing the enormous resources of our talents - of both sexes - we can amaze ourselves by the extent to which British television can become, more than ever, something to be proud of.

This is an edited extract from the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture given last night at the Edinburgh TV festival.