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The stories behind the news.

Beyond the back-slapping at London TV Screenings

The London TV Screenings took place this week as the UK Media Bill was debated

Last week’s buoyant London TV Screenings contrasted sharply with grave forecasts about the future of the TV industry, as UK lawmakers scramble to protect the business from “existential threats” and avoid a repeat scenario of the Project Kangaroo debacle with AI.

As hundreds of international buyers from around the world tucked into canapés at the numerous distributor-hosted cocktail parties in central London this week, following reports of record UK TV exports, you’d be forgiven for thinking all was well in the world of British telly.

Not so. While the London TV Screenings rolled on in Soho this week, a short bus ride away the finer details of the first major update to media legislation the UK has seen for 20 years was being debated in the Lords Chamber in the Palace of Westminster.

This came in the same week new research from film and TV union Bectu laid bare the shocking work drought and wider crisis facing the sector, with the industry’s freelance workforce bearing the brunt of the demise of the streaming boom and a lack of local commissions.

Clearly, all is not well and there are genuine fears that, beyond the eye-catching showreels screened by distributors in plush London members’ clubs, cinemas and hotels, a dip that once would have been put down to the cyclical nature of the bizz could, in fact, be symptomatic of the end of the TV industry as we know it.

As industry veteran Phil Gurin wrote this week in a FRAPA newsletter: “The television industry is in hospice care, which means there is nothing more to be done for the patient except make them comfortable before their ultimate demise.”

Then again, with generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools predicted to impact all aspects of work and everyday life in much the same way email and the internet did in the 1990s, the TV industry’s woes are indicative of wider socio-economic upheaval brought on by a multitude of crises, be they war, the cost of living or the climate emergency.

ITV Studios’ The Way: “We’re constantly on edge, grateful for any tiny reprieve”

This is reflected in some of the content being distributed this week at the London TV Screenings. As a character in ITV Studios-shopped civil uprising drama The Way, currently airing on BBC One, says: “We’re constantly on edge, grateful for any tiny reprieve. But the next threat always comes and it’s exhausting. It means that there’s never any peace. Aren’t you sick of feeling like you don’t have any power?”

Which takes us back to Westminster on Wednesday, when Baron Birt, director general of the BBC between 1992 and 2000, told fellow members of the House of Lords that the UK’s public service broadcasters (PSBs) are facing an “existential threat” with “stormy seas ahead.”

Similar points were being made in London on Wednesday at a Children’s Media Summit, where the Children’s Media Foundation launched a campaign to address the “crisis of childhood” it says is affecting kids in Britain. Truly, Wednesday was a big day for voicing despair about the future of the business.

It’s important to pay particular attention to the children’s media sector – many of the problems it has faced (e.g. viewers deserting linear TV for on-demand in the 2010s) are ones that inevitably rock the wider industry a few years later. They are the Tweety in the coalmine, if you will.

Meanwhile, the full transcript from the second reading of the Media Bill, the latest step in its eventual ascent into UK law, is available here and covers plenty of ground, from foreign ownership of newspapers to praise for ITV’s recent hit drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office and the continued value of PSBs to our culture.

The elephant in the room, however, was the Bill’s lack of anything to do with the potential future impact of generative AI tools that are already having real-life consequences on the media industry. As Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE said on Wednesday: “We are seemingly not addressing, not just an elephant, but a whole algorithmic herd of elephants coming towards us.”

While urging for the long-overdue Media Bill to be introduced as soon as possible, Clare Sumner, director of policy at the BBC, said almost a year ago that AI should be a priority for the government, describing the way AI is adapting and changing as “breathtaking.”

Since then, you need only watch this 10-minute video about Sora, ChatGPT maker OpenAI’s text-to-video model, to understand why the current incarnation of the Bill may not be adequately future-proofed.

“I wonder how our successors in parliament in 25 years’ time will view the framing, ambition and content of the Bill,” said Lord Russell of Liverpool while calling for more thought to be given to how the effects of AI will change modern media “in ways that we can scarcely imagine.”

UK lawmakers are only just getting round to equipping broadcasters with the tools they need to thrive in an intensified era of internet and on-demand television, having missed the opportunity to do just that 15 years ago when they let Project Kangaroo (a proposed VoD joint venture between the commercial arm of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4) get kiboshed by the Competition Commission and open the door for the likes of Netflix to feast on their audience shares.

“We strongly regret the government’s failure to intervene in the Competition Commission’s investigation. We urge that, if other similar UK-based video-on-demand projects are proposed, the government will ensure that the implications for the British television industry are properly taken into account,” the House of Lords said in 2010 in a report titled The British Film and Television Industries – Decline or Opportunity?.

Could history repeat itself and will, a year after the Media Bill is passed, similar regrets be voiced in a report likely titled AI and The British Film and Television Industries – Decline or Opportunity?