Biggest television shake-up in years gives an unclear picture

Television’s chiefs are shifting roles like musical chairs at the moment and the familiar face of TV may alter as a result, says Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is media correspondent of BBC News.

When will the music stop? Jim Hytner’s switch as marketing director from BSkyB to Channel 5, following David Brook’s move to Channel 4, has highlighted a quite unprecedented game of TV musical chairs. Not a day goes by without a highly significant person swapping channels to a highly significant job – which will probably guarantee the biggest on and off-screen shake-up in British television for many years.

Hytner’s move coincided with ITV poaching two programme executives controllers from the BBC. Grant Mansfield, the man behind such “factual” ratings hits as Driving Instructor, and Vets’ School, is to be its controller of documentaries and features. The week before, BBC head of sport Brian Barwick was made ITV’s controller of sport and programme director for its digital channel.

These are the latest moves in a merry-go-round that began with the departures of Michael Grade from C4 and Marcus Plantin from the ITV Network Centre. The two new chief executives – Michael Jackson, who came to C4 from the BBC, and Richard Eyre, to ITV from Capital Radio – have each launched a sweeping review of their operations in which nothing is sacred.

Take ITV. As well as Eyre, it has gained David Liddiment from Granada as director of programmes; controller of daytime, Dianne Nelmes, from the BBC; controller of news and current affairs, Steve Anderson (ex-Watchdog), as well as Barwick and Mansfield; plus a marketing and commercial director, John Hardie, from Procter & Gamble; a controller of planning and acquisitions, David Bergg, from C5; and a controller of children’s programmes, Nigel Pickard, from Flextech.

Elsewhere in ITV, two former C4 directors have popped up: Stewart Butterfield as managing director of Granada UK Broadcasting and John Willis as managing director of United Film & Television Productions. Meanwhile, LWT has rehired Marcus Plantin from the ITV network centre, replacing Simon Shaps, who has moved to Granada as director of programmes.

C4 has taken on David Brook from C5, as director of strategy and development and from the BBC, Kevin Lygo as head of entertainment, and Panorama editor Steve Hewlett as head of factual and features. It still has key vacancies to fill, after the departure of its head of film David Aukin and director of acquisitions Colin Leventhal to set up their own film company.

The BBC has gained a controller of BBC1, Peter Salmon, and a head of entertainment, Bill Hilary, both from Granada, plus a head of drama series, Mal Young, from Pearson and C5.

C5, as well as poaching Hytner, has hired Jeff Ford from ITV as controller of acquisitions, and Ashley Hill from C4 as head of planning. Crucially – and unusually – it has also held onto its director of programmes, Dawn Airey, who had been wooed by BSkyB. And, in unrelated moves, BSkyB is under new management, losing its three top executives, Sam Chisholm, David Chance and – most recently – finance director Richard Brooke.

By any standards this is a remarkable shake-up of talent – more than 30 top people in the five biggest TV organisations changing jobs (and, in most cases, channels) in six months. It far outweighs the upheaval at the last ITV franchise round, when golden handcuffs reduced the poaching to relatively minor proportions. And it is not over yet.

There are still several significant jobs to fill, particularly in news and current affairs, where a BBC restructuring and a C4 review have added to the turmoil. With ITV and C4 under radical new management, cable and satellite taking almost 13 per cent of viewing, C5 a further three per cent, and the launch of digital TV to come, the new year will see huge changes.

The most significant is the expected move of News at Ten, which ad agencies seem to assume will happen. Last time it was proposed, the Independent Television Commission, egged on by MPs, blocked the move. Now it says if ITV puts forward a case it will consider it.

But ITV’s new team is looking at more than this – nothing less than the whole structure of the channel and the architecture of the programme schedule. If that changes significantly, its rivals will have to respond. At C4, Michael Jackson has begun reform, even before the Government’s new programme requirements start to bite. The arrival of David Brook shows it goes far beyond a programme reshuffle.

And with C5 News to challenge C4 News head-on, vacating the 8.30pm slot and the BBC reviewing all its news output and scheduling, fixed points in the evening schedule could be free after more than 15 years.

But what does such an upheaval mean for programmes? Most of the executives on the merry-go-round already had series – or marketing plans – in train for their existing channels. Not only do they know their previous employers’ plans but they will either inherit – or throw out – their predecessors’ proposals. Some may try to take programme ideas with them, others to scupper them for their previous channels.

Such uncertainty is not conducive to producing good programmes. At last week’s Drama Forum, Alex Graham, managing director of Wall to Wall Television, pointed out the consequence for that genre: “Where you have people who seem to spend an average of nine months in each job, it’s difficult to see how sustained support for the creative community can come out of that.”

When the music stops, every major channel will have a new team it hopes will stay for longer than nine months. Disruptive in the short-term, the moves of autumn 1997 could retune the TV picture for the next five years.

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