RTS Cambridge Convention 2013: David Abraham's opening remarks

RTS Cambridge Convention 2013: David Abraham's opening remarks

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Wednesday, 2nd October 2013

These are the opening remarks given by Channel 4 Chief Executive David Abraham at the RTS Cambridge Convention 2013, in a session entitled Whose Side Are You On?, on Wednesday 11 September 2013.

I’d like to welcome you all to the conference and set the scene for this opening session and for the conference as a whole. It’s always a challenge to try and encapsulate discussions on behalf of an entire industry into a coherent 48 hour event – especially when one considers the big beasts that have performed this role and the ideological battles that have played out here over the years.

The first RTS Cambridge I ever went to was the day after 9/11. What I remember was the debate that happened that year about the evolution of digital TV and the fightback of the terrestrials. E4 had been launched earlier that year and BBC3 and 4 were about to happen.

In 2003 Greg Dyke used this convention to set up a series of debatable scenarios about winners and losers in the process of digital switchover. At that point there was still uncertainty as to whether switchover was achievable at all, speculation about Sky launching a terrestrial Channel 6, how Carlton and Granada would merge and what the impact of broadband would be. In one prescient scenario, BT bid successfully for premiership football rights. Rather more pessimistically, the consensus in the room was that linear TV would be dead by 2010.

When I was initially approached about chairing this Cambridge I sounded out key figures in the industry, producers in particular, about a potential space between the creative festivities of Edinburgh and the strategy and policy debates for which Cambridge is commonly known. Many of the people I spoke to admitted privately that much of the commentary about suits vs creatives in our field is increasingly redundant. So we formed an advisory group, to whom I am very grateful, and set as our goal a joined-up conversation that genuinely tried to bring the left and the right brains of our industries together properly for a rare meeting of minds. And I’m pleased that we made THAT our focus because THIS Convention now comes just a short while after Kevin Spacey’s McTaggart speech at Edinburgh, which clearly touched a nerve in our industry but which at the same time left many knotty issues in its wake. I hope over the next two days we might begin to address them.

How indeed will creative risk be rewarded and by whom when increasingly, everyone in this room both competes and collaborates with each other? For content creators, global technology has made it an ever more complex challenge to choose whose corporate side to be on in the short, medium and long term. In this environment, avoiding a creeping sense of paranoia is never easy. Whose side are we really on, as executives, as owners, as investors as regulators as viewers, and even, as citizens? In this ever more confusing world we wanted to examine the key strategies, that, as both public and private organisations, we adopt to generate value from UK programming. Then, provoke a debate about where we all sit as links in a value chain that can continue to support the process of generating great creative work in the future.

For Kevin Spacey, the Golden Age of TV appears to be almost completely American. But I think this underestimates the huge, and particular, creative strengths of Britain’s television industry - it was here, in Britain, after all, that House of Cards was originated, and it is the UK that has led the world in exciting new format ideas, which invests more in original content per head than any other comparable country, and which is home to the most vibrant independent sector in the world. British creativity is what underpins the industry we are all part of in this room today and this has emerged from a very British way of organizing ourselves. I’ve worked in US television and in my experience, despite being a nation of 300m people, America does not match the UK for our combination of quality and breadth in television – from Broadchurch to Southcliffe; from The King In The Car Park to Simon Schama, from Idiot Abroad to Dynamo. It was to the UK that I recall US executives looked for innovation and inspiration across the genres because of the amount of constant creative risk built into our system.

As Deloitte are about to show, The TV industry has proved stronger and more resilient than anyone ever anticipated – with the latest data showing that television viewing has risen, sector revenue is on the increase, and employment and training activity has grown.

One of the things that struck me, reflecting back on the 2003 conference, was what a key point of change for our sector that year was – whether it was the birth of Ofcom and the terms of trade or the early days of broadband. So could 2013 also be such a critical moment in time? There are three reasons that suggest this might be the case.

First: Even just two years ago, at the last Cambridge, connected TV was just an idea. It is now a reality in 30% of homes – estimated to be 40% by the end of this year. Many in the sector believe we are moving inexorably towards either a second digital switchover, or, even more radically, a permanent shift to IP distribution. What might this mean for the whole edifice of Free to air TV?

Second: The independent sector is maturing. 10 years after the terms of trade were introduced, it is now a world-renowned sector worth more than £2.5bn, including dozens of players owned by multinationals. But are the frameworks set in place in 2003 now fit for purpose? Critically, if our USP as a nation is in producing new ideas, how do we protect the system that currently supports idea generation in the future given the increasingly borderless nature of tech platforms?

Next, we are in another moment of genuine policy potential. After a few years of consultation, the Government is now taking forward proposals on legislative change, as outlined in their Communications Strategy Paper. It cannot be long before the BBC’s Charter Review is kicked off. This is the last Cambridge before the 2015 general election, and lines between the parties are beginning to be drawn as manifestos are shaped.

So this conference is designed to work as a series of interconnected arguments. And this being a Channel 4 backed event – at times I predict you will want to disagree with what you will see and hear and I encourage you to do so vocally. The shape of the next two days will follow the creative value chain through from start to finish and, in parallel, stop off along the way and examine new issues that are being thrown up. Our approach is to interleave discussions on key issues with spotlights on individual organisations and pose questions to the conference throughout.

To help orientate us, Deloitte have created a holistic picture of how content creation is working today. Their findings are illuminating and we will be sharing them with you in a moment. But before we do, let’s get a quick temperature check in the room. Let’s spend a few moments taking a look at the opinions that we’ve brought with us here today – and see how we differ according to who we work for, and whose side we are naturally on. And to highlight a prevailing sense of global paranoia, let’s hear now from our first expert provocateur, Mr Charlie Brooker. (VT)


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