Fear and Loathing in Edinburgh: Andrew Billen Watches as the TV Suits Hold Their Annual Exercise in Self-Justification. (Television)

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The best comedy performance I saw in Edinburgh last week came not from the Fringe but from the controller of Channel 5 (or "5" as the rebranders now wish us to know it). Speaking at one of the annual TV festival's meet-the-controller sessions, Kevin Lygo was explaining how he had inadvertently caused The Simpsons to end up on Channel 4. Discovering that the BBC's contract to show episodes was coming up for renewal, Lygo from Channel 5 had leapt in with a bid to Fox of double the [pounds sterling]25,000 it was charging. Deeply pissed off, the BBC matched the offer, whereupon the bidding escalated to [pounds sterling]100,000 and then [pounds sterling]250,000, at which point the BBC, bruised, pulled out.

Enter Channel 4, under the command of its "risky" new chief executive, Mark Thompson. With the bit between his teeth now, Lygo would have paid [pounds sterling]1m per new episode, for as long as they continued to be made, had his company's German owners not told him to get a grip: "Vot? For these yellow-faced cartoon men, you vant to pay [pounds sterling]1m!" And so Thompson got Homer and Bart--for life.

The story of how millions of pounds were taken out of British television's commissioning budgets for the sake of a programme now in its 12th year, that was already being shown on two stations (Sky One and BBC2), would be tragic were it not, as I say, so funny. The worrying aspect was that Lygo concluded that whatever Channel 4 paid -- and Thompson later promised it was less than [pounds sterling]100,000 a throw--it was money well spent.

At the inquest following his MacTaggart Lecture, Martha Kearney nevertheless rightly pressed Thompson on how this purchase squared with his call the night before for "a schedule which is full of fresh ideas, with more creative energy, with more live programming where neither we nor the viewers know what to expect". There was, indeed, general disappointment with Thompson, reflected in the fact that there was more chat about his new ginger beard than what he said. The idea that, should it hit hard times, Channel 4 might expect a bailout from the Treasury to protect its public service output was widely regarded as ludicrous, particularly since last year it threw away 10 per cent of its budget down the dark well of its new media adventures, E4 and Film 4. And there was anger that, once again, an executive who for years had been responsible for British television should tell the rest of us how "dull, mechanical and samey" most of it is. "Let's just say confession is one of the more comforting of the sacraments," said Thompson, an inscrutable Catholic for whom the pejorative Jesuitical could have been invented.

Yet his speech accurately hit the same mournful note that was being struck again and again: that something had gone wrong with telly, but no one quite knew what. …