Dorothy Byrne, head of news at current affairs at Channel 4 has issued a rallying call to the TV industry to “reinvent itself” to better reflect “seismic” shifts British society.
She cautioned that TV had lost its place at the heart of public debate, saying execs must address diversity issues and start producing “really clever and difficult programmes” to help it find its way back.
The former World In Action producer also urged broadcasters to “form a united front in opposing attempts to sideline TV’s central role in democracy”.
Delivering the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture on Tuesday (21 August), the journalist described TV as the “bulwark” of democracy in a post-truth world but said UK broadcasters were failing to cater to the demands of young, politically-engaged audiences.
“Our country is undergoing seismic changes. There is widespread disillusion and a loss of a sense of belonging as society fragments,” she said.
“Whatever happens about Brexit, we need big new ideas to take us forward. But I don’t see big ideas on TV now.”
Instead, she said, millions of young people were instead turning to books, Ted Talks and podcasts in their search to see the world in alternative ways and get answers to major issues like climate change.
To combat this, she suggested programming should provide a vision for change instead of simply documenting society as is.
Pointing to Channel 4’s joint investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2017, she argued it wasn’t the role of UK broadcasters to add to the “plethora” of programming around serial killers and drugs, but instead to create bold programmaing about Britain.
She went on: “If we are worried about becoming irrelevant, one of the best things we can do is to start making big controversial programmes about the UK which put us back at the heart of public debate as we used to be.”
Noting Ofcom's observation that terrestrial still accounts for 69% of all viewing in the UK, Byrne said broadcasters should stop looking over their shoulder at Netflix et al and instead build on their high levels of trust among audiences.
She also urged the industry to “reinvent itself” and think about what made it unique.
“In the case of terrestrial TV – we are the only people who have any interest in saying big things about Britain.
“That’s not the role of Netflix or other streaming services, terrific as they are in many ways.”
As well as producing World In Action, Byrne was previously editor of The Big Story for ITV. She became head of news and current affairs for Channel 4 in 2003, prior to which she edited Dispatches.
Her comments come as Channel 4 prepares to open offices in Leeds and Glasgow to better serve regional audiences in the UK. The move is part of a deal the public service broadcaster struck with the government in 2016.
Channel 4's chief exec, Alex Mahon, has previously outlined her vision for the channel as one that represents the whole of the UK and appeals to diverse audiences, falling in line with Byrne's take.
Time to achieve ‘real change’ on diversity
Speaking as part of Edinburgh International TV Festival, Byrne pulled no punches in criticising the industry’s lack of progress in hiring people from BAME backgrounds and telling more diverse stories on-screen. She described the former as “the single most disappointing failure” she’d experienced in her 40-year career.
As such, she implored Channel 4's Mahon, BBC director general Tony Hall, ITV chief Caroline McCall and Viacom’s David Lynn to enact change from the top.
“The most important reason for us to get our houses in order on diversity is that our current failure undermines our role as the key mediators between politicians and the public,” Byrne continued.
“How can we represent the people of the UK if we ourselves are unrepresentative of the population?," she asked, highlighting the fact that just 2.2% of UK television programmes were made by BAME directors.
Drawing on personal experiences, Byrne also touched on women’s equality in the workplace. She detailed how far the sector had come since she had been a victim of sexual assault on her first day at Granada; by a director she had been forewarned about from a female colleague.
“Sure enough he did assault me – one of the few examples in my career of the promise of a TV boss coming true. His assault was a criminal offence but who could I complain to? I learned early on that as a woman I was on my own,” she said.
She closed by urging major broadcasters and larger companies need to take the lead by offering flexible and reduced working to women so they are not lost to the industry during pregnancy or menopause.
Byrne did, however, caution against the "idea that we don’t need older white men anymore and that they should be crushed out of the way.”
“I hate the term, ‘pale, male and stale.’ As someone who sticks up for the rights of old ladies, I need to stick up for old gents too,” she said.