Eyre exit from ITV leaves task of network shake-up incomplete

ITV chief Richard Eyre has done much to strengthen the TV network. His early departure may jeopardise its precarious recovery, says Torin Douglas

There is a certain symmetry in the broadcasting merry-go-round that has seen Richard Eyre renounce his revivalist mission at ITV to take over Greg Dyke’s job as chief executive of Pearson Television, just as Dyke arrives at the BBC to begin his revivalist mission as director general – a post for which Eyre was a leading contender.

Eyre’s announcement caused consternation at ITV, which thought it had regained his undivided attention once the top job in broadcasting was out of his sights. The Pearson Television post offers many opportunities and challenges, but it has nowhere near the high profile or strategic importance of the post Eyre currently holds, running the UK’s most popular television network.

As chief executive of ITV, Eyre has made a remarkable start, reviving the network’s audience levels, braving the opposition to the move of News at Ten, and overseeing a single-minded programming and marketing strategy that unites rather than divides ITV’s 15 regional entities. But the job is by no means complete.

The forces of News at Ten are regrouping for another assault, believing they can retake the heights of the schedule they lost a year ago.

In the past two weeks, Culture Secretary Chris Smith and chairman of the Independent Television Commission Sir Robin Biggam have expressed strong reservations about the impact of the switch, and now the Mirror has thrown its weight behind a campaign to bring back the UK’s best-known bulletin.

Given that the Mirror began its campaign the day after the failure of its last one – to get Manchester United back into the FA Cup – it may be that ITV has little to fear. But the paper did help reverse another seemingly lost cause – the fight for a Diana memorial – and 12,000 of its readers say they want the bongs back at their original time.

More significantly, as Biggam pointed out in a recent speech, the news shake-up has caused havoc in ITV’s early evening schedule. “It is already clear that ratings for regional programmes have suffered badly, especially for the all-important regional news programmes,” he said. The Independent Television Commission (ITC) has demanded a new strategy for the early evening schedule, which ITV is developing.

It is at this point that Eyre has chosen to move on.

The decision will have surprised those who heard his recent speeches at the Edinburgh Television Festival, the Marketing Society dinner and the ITV 2000 programme launch. In them, he made clear there remained much to be done at ITV. He also raised some hackles with his plain speaking.

In Eyre’s MacTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh, he forecast that in the digital age there would be far less need for regulation, and that public service broadcasting would soon be dead. He suggested it should be replaced by a new concept – that of “public interest” broadcasting. Chris Smith made it clear he did not agree, and privately the ITC was less than enchanted too.

In his Marketing Society speech, Eyre angered the representatives of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) and some of its members by criticising their call for advertising on the BBC and an increase in advertising minutage. ISBA’s Bob Wootton and others have spoken out strongly against him in the trade press.

It would be shortsighted for them to welcome Eyre’s departure, however. A strong ITV is in the advertisers’ interests and he has undoubtedly strengthened it. The question is how far he will weaken it by leaving before his job is completed.

Eyre does not join Pearson until the New Year but, even so, he will be in charge of the company before Dyke, who left Pearson in August, gets both hands on the levers of power at the BBC. For the next five months, Dyke will be working alongside Sir John Birt, as his deputy and director-general-designate.

This long handover is not as daft as some observers believe. Anyone who has joined the corporation, even in a relatively lowly capacity, will tell you how long it takes to find one’s way around and understand what makes the various parts tick. When you’ve been put in charge, the problem is magnified a hundredfold.

The BBC is also an alarmingly high-profile organisation, and no one has a higher profile than the director-general, as Dyke quickly discovered – even before he got the job – when his donations to Labour became known. His every word will be analysed and interpreted (and misinterpreted) by staff, competitors, performers, Government, politicians, the media and even, on occasion, by listeners, viewers and licence payers. And the director-general won’t have the luxury of saying “I don’t know” for very long.

Since this is also the moment when the debate over the future funding of the BBC comes to a head, Dyke may well be grateful not to be in charge just yet. Comments on the Davies Report must reach the Government this week, after which the Commons Culture and Media Committee will start quizzing interested parties about its proposals.

Dyke may be happy to leave the hard questions to Birt and Sir Christopher Bland because he has been on the receiving end of this committee’s wrath before. Several years ago, he was one of the ITV executives who tried to move News at Ten and failed.

Ironically Eyre, before he leaves ITV, could also find himself in the committee’s firing line – since ITV has strong views about the Davies report (opposing both a digital licence fee and advertising on the BBC). Once he is seated before them, the MPs may find it hard to resist a question or two about News at Ten.

After that, the relative obscurity of Pearson Television may be welcome.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News News at Ten

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