Eyre casts long shadow over ITV

Was he jumped on, or did he push himself? Theories abound as to why Richard Eyre is abruptly quitting ITV to join Pearson Television as chief executive. But they all concur on one point: it’s not great news for ITV.

Clearly Eyre’s new position has proved itself a useful staging post – it was recently vacated by Greg Dyke. Eyre was disappointed at breaking his lance, when tilting for the top BBC post earlier this year, on a lack of programming experience. Pearson, producer of The Bill, Baywatch and Neighbours, would remedy that deficiency were Eyre to have another go at becoming director general in a few years’ time.

Other calculations will no doubt have played their part. For example, the package offered by Pearson, reckoned to be upwards of &£500,000, is generous indeed compared with what Eyre received from ITV, for managing a higher profile, more stressful position. Some have even hinted that Eyre is setting his sights on running a major public limited company. If he plays his cards right at the TV company, he might be in a position to succeed Majorie Scardino as group chief executive.

All the same, there is something premature about Eyre’s departure – from ITV’s point of view that is.

Two years into his stewardship, ITV’s fortunes have been transformed. Peaktime audiences are higher, revenues better, the schedule has been rejuvenated, the News at Ten battle won, and the network rebranded and strengthened. But – and this has been admitted by Eyre himself – much remains to be done. What, for example, of ITV’s sadly lagging multi-channel digital platform? And how about the task of disentangling an archaic regulation system which continues to choke ITV like bindweed?

Cynically, it could be argued Eyre is quitting while he is still ahead. The big battles have been won: what remains is some nasty and protracted warfare in the trenches. And yet, though ambitious, he is not the revolving-doors type. Witness his stewardship of Capital Radio, which lasted six years.

More likely Eyre threw his hands up in frustration. Federations are never easy to run – and ITV, which bristles with powerful egos, is more difficult than most. The major shareholders, Carlton, Granada and United News & Media, which had every reason to rally behind Eyre and the ITV brand when he first arrived, may feel less compelled to do so now that he has won their battles for them.

Whatever his reasons for quitting, Eyre leaves a big hole. It will be difficult to find a replacement who replicates his popularity, capability and integrity.

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