The best comedy performance I saw in Edinburgh last week came not from the Fringe but from the controller of Channel 5 (or "5" as the rebranders now wish us to know it). Speaking at one of the annual TV festival's meet- the-controller sessions, Kevin Lygo was explaining how he had inadvertently caused The Simpsons to end up on Channel 4. Discovering that the BBC's contract to show episodes was coming up for renewal, Lygo from Channel 5 had leapt in with a bid to Fox of double the £25,000 it was charging. Deeply pissed off, the BBC matched the offer, whereupon the bidding escalated to £100,000 and then £250,000, at which point the BBC, bruised, pulled out.
Enter Channel 4, under the command of its "risky" new chief executive, Mark Thompson. With the bit between his teeth now, Lygo would have paid £1m per new episode, for as long as they continued to be made, had his company's German owners not told him to get a grip: "Vot? For these yellow-faced cartoon men, you vant to pay £1m!" And so Thompson got Homer and Bart - for life.
The story of how millions of pounds were taken out of British television's commissioning budgets for the sake of a programme now in its 12th year, that was already being shown on two stations (Sky One and BBC2), would be tragic were it not, as I say, so funny. The worrying aspect was that Lygo concluded that whatever Channel 4 paid - and Thompson later promised it was less than £100,000 a throw - it was money well spent.
At the inquest following his MacTaggart Lecture, Martha Kearney nevertheless rightly pressed Thompson on how this purchase squared with his call the night before for "a schedule which is full of fresh ideas, with more creative energy, with more live programming where neither we nor the viewers know what to expect". There was, indeed, general disappointment with Thompson, reflected in the fact that there was more chat about his new ginger beard than what he said. The idea that, should it hit hard times, Channel 4 might expect a bailout from the Treasury to protect its public service output was widely regarded as ludicrous, particularly since last year it threw away 10 per cent of its budget down the dark well of its new media adventures, E4 and Film 4. And there was anger that, once again, an executive who for years had been responsible for British television should tell the rest of us how "dull, mechanical and samey" most of it is. "Let's just say confession is one of the more comforting of the sacraments," said Thompson, an inscrutable Catholic for whom the pejorative Jesuitical could have been invented.
Yet his speech accurately hit the same mournful note that was being struck again and again: that something had gone wrong with telly, but no one quite knew what. In his session, Channel 4's monkish controller, Tim Gardam, who seems determined to stick it out under his new boss, pointed to some enterprising comedies he had commissioned despite sometimes indifferent ratings - Book Room, Black Books, Smack the Pony, Phoenix Nights - and some risky documentaries. Understandably, he neglected to mention the Richard and Judy debacle, his breakfast folly, Ri:se, or any number of doubtful sexotainment strands that more accurately characterise the channel's often dubious tone. He lamented the "demographic pressures on current TV" that come from advertisers desperate to talk to 16- to 24-year-olds and almost no one else.
Once again, the most worrying figure at the festival was David Liddiment, ITV's outgoing director of channels, who is now emerging from the commercial wilderness as a fully fledged martyr/prophet screaming wildly at Greg Dyke and, on Saturday morning, during the ITV's Rocky Road session, at David Elstein, who likened ITV's internal squabbling between Granada and Carlton to "two men fighting over an ice cream while the sun's shining - with David Liddiment and his team trying to run the air-conditioning".
At a session entitled Take a Risk, Liddiment spoke of his pride in commissioning Kay Mellor's prostitute drama, Band of Gold, but also about feeling "incredibly exposed" when he failed to deliver advertisers their promised ratings. Everyone spoke of the fantastic liberation of the period when, thanks to a glitch in the machinery, there were no overnight ratings to pore over. It was an illuminating hour, but what was most significant, perhaps, were the paltry examples of risk the participants came up with. These included BBC2's risible The Trench, C4's unlamented The Word, BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey's current hit Spooks and ITV1's Bob and Rose. B&R was a delightful show, but, as its creator, Russell T Davies, said, it was only considered risky because it featured men kissing - whereas the execrable Merseybeat barely causes an eyebrow to rise when its strong female lead is raped before the watershed "and the rape is considered in as much depth as murder is on Murder She Wrote".
When the silver linings are almost as forbidding as the dark clouds, you need a laugh and on Saturday night we got it. The Channel of the Year Award went, incredibly, to Channel 5, for "delivering exactly what it said on the tin". As Lygo, who accepted the prize, said: "If you think I seem surprised, you should see the look on Lorraine Heggessey's face."
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times