Edinburgh TV Festival Advisory Chair On Staging A Pandemic-Era Event: “We’ve Got A Four-Day TV Channel Taking Over The Industry”

EXCLUSIVE: Edinburgh TV Festival’s advisory chair Patrick Holland has said that this year’s event has been transformed into a popup television channel after the industry’s annual trip to Scotland was scotched by the coronavirus pandemic.

Holland, whose day job is running BBC Two and BBC Four, said he and the festival’s full-time team have curated a four-day event in the same way he shapes the schedules of the channels he oversees. Sessions will ebb and flow between “stimulation, excitement, provocation, and brilliant talent,” while there will be continuity announcers of sorts to ensure the Edinburgh feed never goes dark.

“From afar, you might think this is going to be a series of Zoom calls, and it’s really not. It’s much more like… a television channel. We’ve got a four-day television channel that’s taking over the television industry,” Holland explained.

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As usual, speakers will include all the major network controllers, U.S. executives including FX chief John Landgraf, a sprinkling of stardust in the shape of Emilia Clarke and Daisy Edgar-Jones, and keynotes from the industry’s top executives, not least a farewell address from outgoing BBC director general Tony Hall.

Holland said two themes will permeate through every session of the 2020 Edinburgh TV Festival: the incalculable impact of coronavirus, which has “exposed inequalities in our industry,” and the issue of diversity, which took on renewed urgency following the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We said right at the beginning that diversity was going to be right at the heart of everything we did across the festival. This was before the killing of George Floyd,” the advisory chair said. “We all wanted diversity to be a prism through which we saw all of the debates, rather than it being a separate debate added on.”

Speakers will pose questions like, “When will TV have a Black controller?”, while Edinburgh’s centerpiece address, the MacTaggart Lecture, will be delivered by the eloquent British historian and TV presenter David Olusoga. It’s a speech that so often sets the tone and talking points of the entire event as delegates file out of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, and Holland promised it will be just as impactful through the glow of a screen.

Olusoga will deliver the speech live from a closely guarded location. He will be filmed using “very high-end cameras” to provide a gloss that will offer relief from pixelated Zoom calls. And his message is likely to be a challenging one for an industry, which is making slow progress in telling diverse stories and handing power to BAME decision-makers.

Holland has read the speech, but was tight-lipped about its contents. “It will not disappoint,” said the BBC Two controller, who has worked with Olusoga on hit series A House Through Time. “I had very high hopes for the MacTaggart. David speaks and writes absolutely beautifully. I was absolutely blown away when I read it.”

Other sessions have also been pre-recorded with high production values, but at its core, Edinburgh will remain a live proposition — a forum for debate, challenge, and questions from a list of delegates that represents the best of British television. Holland said All3Media’s digital arm Little Dot Studios has been crucial to bringing polish to the live sessions, and the festival will use learnings from the emergency network controller panels it organized at the height of the pandemic.

“It will be the highest-end version [of Zoom sessions]. Some of them have been recorded with a bit of delay, so that what we can do is have a bit of vision mixing. We’ll be able to help steer audiences through the debate with close-ups. There’s a huge level of production that is going into ensuring this looks and feels very alive. We want it to feel like a series of television shows,” said Holland.

There are, of course, certain elements a virtual festival can never replicate. The frisson in a room when a debate turns lively, the hum of a conference center being salacious or snarky about sessions just witnessed, and the moments of serendipity when industry colleagues run into each other in The George. But Holland is confident that people will shut their laptops at the end of the week with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I want people to come away from the festival really feeling confident in our industry and feeling there is a way through this. I want people to come away with a renewed confidence. I want to reframe the debate about diversity. It’s a real clarion call for change,” he said.

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