Not many television chief executives come to personify the channels they head. But, in Michael Grade’s case, the man was the brand. The outsize cigar stubbed in an ashtray outside his office was like a flag over Windsor Castle, denoting the chief was in. The ubiquitous red braces signalled flamboyance in a world of grey suits. Braces and cigar are apt symbols of a rare combination of talents: creative thinking and business nous. They will be exceptionally difficult to replace in one person.
Grade was not always so highly regarded. When appointed head of Channel 4 in 1988, there were many who considered him as an unsuitable successor to the considered and patrician Jeremy Isaacs. These included Isaacs himself.
But the qualities which critics faulted were precisely those that enabled C4 to surf with aplomb the much rougher, more blatantly commercial environment emerging over the next few years.
Grade’s showy, extrovert personality – his evident relish in performing on stage – excited fears that he was a relentless publicity seeker who would propel C4 downmarket in a misguided attempt to attract ratings. And it’s true that Chris Evans, the Word and various imported US comedies would have been unlikely candidates on an Isaacs’ schedule.
But then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could have championed the C4 cause with such robust vigour – and success. Grade was the first to articulate the crisis in programming quality facing British television, and to take up cudgels against it. When C4 later became a victim of its own commercial success, Grade personally led the crusade that resulted in the ITV funding formula (oppressive tax as he would have it) being overturned. Latterly, he seems to have thwarted a Government privatisation plan that, arguably, would have deprived C4 of its uniqueness.
Part of that uniqueness lies in being unbeholden to shareholders, with their explicitly commercial priorities. Ironically, this very fact seems to have contributed to Grade’s departure. Though well remunerated (500,000 a year), he has been unable to build an equity stake la Ron Miller or Melvyn Bragg.
But this cannot be the only reason. The suspicion lingers that Grade has simply had enough; whether because he has been bruised once too often by the brickbats or through boredom.
Quit while you’re ahead is a good maxim. But it can engender formidable problems for any successor. C4, like all the other terrestrial channels, faces a potential decline in audience and revenue in the next few years. It will need to diversify in an imaginative way. And indeed, this is what Grade seemed to be hinting at when he told Marketing Week a couple of months ago (November 15 1996) of plans to launch a digital service.