Andrew Billen - Back to reality

Television - Bitching about quality is in fashion again at Edinburgh

One of the most entertaining sessions of this year's Media Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival was "Grumpy Old Men", in which the greats of yesteryear - or, in the case of the former ITV boss David Liddiment, a great of last year - complained about bimbo presenters, obtrusive background music, badly written documentary scripts, tedious make-over shows and sofas ("Why do you need sofas on the Olympics?"). The one subject that escaped their embittered nostalgia was the festival itself which, as a grumpy old veteran, I can confirm was once a chance for cheeky young producers to rag their bosses in the certain knowledge that television was a nice middle-class profession from which no one ever got fired. Then jobs went, short-term contracts came in and independents relied for their very existence on not offending commissioning editors. Television became just another cut-throat industry. Bitching about programme quality not so much went out of fashion as became irrelevant.

Well, it was different this year. Certainly, standards are traditionally invoked by whoever delivers the opening MacTaggart lecture. Dennis Potter's attack on Birtist daleks, Liddiment's plea for creativity in ITV and the faux-naIf shock at television's mediocrity of the then incoming head of Channel 4, Mark Thompson, all spring to mind. But these speeches did not, as I recall, have much impact on the sessions that followed. This year's lecturer was John Humphrys, whose gimmick was that he had spent five years not watch- ing the box. His was a cab driver's rant against reality TV, Big Brother in particular, with an attack on John Lloyd's attack on cynical political interviewers thrown in to make up weight. It may have been the most superficial MacTaggart on record, but somehow it proved hard to ignore this grumpy old man's contention that public service television is now doing harm to society.

Admittedly, at the post-MacTaggart interrogation of Humphrys the next morning, no one from Endemol, the powerful independent that makes Big Brother, bothered to defend the series and it was left to an articulate Channel 4 press officer, Yvonne Taylor, to argue for the show's sociological significance and to point out that, while Humphrys was alarmed by the crude assessment that two male housemates made of women, he missed the point that it was precisely their misogyny that led to them being voted out. "You don't like Big Brother," she said, "because you know absolutely nothing about young people today." Steve Hewlett, interviewing Humphrys, suggested more gently that he was less capable of "decoding" the series than younger viewers.

But by now the reality genre was in a corner. How did this year's "evil" BB differ from viewing the inmates of Bedlam? What was to stop, as Humphrys excitedly put it, anal sex from being next season's big talking point? And who was looking after the interests of the participants? At another session, clips shown by Simon Cowell from the new series The X Factor suggested that Pop Idol had also gone evil by concentrating on the losers. Cowell said he planned to show "what it's like for certain people to have their dreams shattered".

Even the likeable and funny Channel 4 controller Kevin Lygo admitted in his session that Humphrys had a point, if not a very sophisticated one (he joked that the lecture was "so intricately argued" that it took him a bit of time to get through it). But he insisted that Channel 4 was always asking itself if it had gone too far this time. Television may have got coarser, but it was also closer to "a genuine reflection of society". Interestingly, this was not the justification offered by his former boss Mark Thompson, who merely said in his session, called "Defining Public Value", that BB subsidised Channel 4 News and Operatunity (a reality show that even Humphrys liked). "And part of the rich experience of watching Big Brother is knowing that John Humphrys is chewing the carpet."

Thompson, who is now the BBC's director general, defined public value (the new name for public service) as excellence, with the caveat that the BBC should decide on what its priorities ought to be. Less money spent, perhaps, on big American movies. On the other hand, he was not about to cancel Christmas. If he sounded vague, he had authority for his vagueness. Bernard Williams was, apparently, keen on quoting Nietzsche to the effect that the only things that can be defined are things that have no history.

I thought Thompson, in his first major address as director general, was still too complacent about the quality of BBC drama, but his warning that the corporation must make sure it is not let down by the quality of its "ballast" suggested he was going to be less tolerant of at least some of the betes noires of grumpy old men, such as make-over shows and property "porn". Because it is charter renewal time, Thompson's fine words may be expected to butter at least a few parsnips, but his "new focus on excellence" will not necessarily shift certain of his staff's old focus on crapness.

At my favourite session, grumpy old Michael Hurll, a former head of BBC light entertainment, said he had sent out a spoof commissioning letter to the major channels. His proposal was for something called The Asylum-Seekers' Talent Competition. Also open to illegal immigrants, the show's first prize would be citizenship; losers would be deported. Besides blunter rejections was one from a BBC commissioner who wrote: "We have a similar idea we are working on."

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times