Still resisting the sea of conformity

On the one hand Greg Dyke can rouse mutinous support from BBC staff, and on the other, vilification from TV buyers for ‘dumbing down’ programme scheduling.

Greg Dyke, former director-general of the BBC and chairman of Marketing Week’s television conference in Paris this week, has already got the UK’s TV executives perched on the edges of their seats.

They are dying to hear about his intentions – or absence of them. They want to know whether he is advising venture capitalists Apax Partners on a takeover of ITV and planning to install himself in the hot seat as supremo of the UK’s main ad-funded channel. Failing that, they wonder whether he will head production company Hit TV, join Big Brother creator Endemol as chairman or indeed ever hold a leading job in TV again.

Dyke is unlikely to satisfy their curiosity, this week at least. He describes himself as “semi-employed of Twickenham” and when talking exclusively to Marketing Week about his reaction to speculation that he will lead a takeover of ITV, he says: “I smile to myself.” Is he planning to take part in a bid for ITV? “I don’t answer those sorts of questions,” he says.

The grammar school boy from Hayes who made it to the top before being expelled from the number one media job in the country (director-general of the BBC) in January last year following the Hutton Report now claims he is taking life easy after his resignation.

“I quite like not working as hard. I write a lot, I think a lot, I play a bit of golf, go out with my mates, ride horses, do a bit of fishing,” he says. “I’m sitting and contemplating.”

This version of an unassuming Dyke doesn’t square entirely with his public persona. He might add to that list his media outpourings that include his views on the BBC, Tony Blair, the Iraq war and Malcolm Glazer’s intentions for Manchester United. He’s written an autobiography, Inside Story, which attacks the Government over the Iraq war and the Hutton Report, and he made a programme about it too.

He writes a column in The Independent. He gives talks on creative leadership. He’s chairing a television conference. Recently made Chancellor of the University of York, he was even rumoured to be making a surprise appearance in Celebrity Big Brother. And now the former Labour supporter and donor is in the media for switching allegiance to the Liberal Democrats.

It is a wonder that he has any time for contemplation. Semi-employed he may be, the affable egg-head is still in the limelight, just where he likes to be.

One source says he needs to move on from his BBC sacking before he gets back into mainstream TV. Becoming director-general was a dream come true for Dyke, says the source, and he has become obsessed with the fallout from the Hutton Inquiry. He is in danger of becoming a one-trick pony, the man you call upon to knock New Labour.

In effect, the source is saying: “Television needs you Greg: don’t blow it.”

In truth some City analysts play down the likelihood of a venture capital bid for ITV – with or without Dyke. They also doubt ITV boss Charles Allen is about to be dumped to make way for Dyke.

Private vs personal

Former Five boss and ex-colleague David Elstein says: “Is he going to be chief executive of ITV? No. Channel 4 chairman? Possibly. He could buy Flextech TV if it ever came up for sale.”

Dyke’s outspoken views on Hutton wouldn’t matter in jobs in private companies, though they could in a listed public company, says Elstein. But he adds: “Even if Greg thought it would be prudent to be less noisy, he doesn’t worry about those things. I’m sure there’s lots more in the pot as far as Greg’s concerned when it comes to his ability to run things. He’s always been a fairly unconventional business leader anyway, leading from the front. He’s not the world’s greatest diplomat, and those are qualities that limit his tradability in certain areas.”

Dyke says: “My treatment by the BBC doesn’t leave a bitterness, though I have learned that being right doesn’t necessarily matter.”

Dyke has many fans in the TV industry, as was witnessed when BBC staff, some tearful, took to the streets in support of him after his resignation was accepted by the BBC governors following Hutton’s ferocious criticism of the corporation’s reporting and role in the Kelly affair. This criticism is strongly rebutted by Dyke.

Jim Hytner, group brand and UK marketing director of Barclays Bank, who was marketing chief at Five – then known as Channel 5 – when Dyke was chairman, believes Dyke will not let himself be held back by the BBC episode.

“I desperately hope Greg has a role to play in TV in the future, there seems to be a vacuum of big personalities and creative gurus in mainstream TV, and Greg is missed. I’ve got my fingers crossed that he does take another big TV job,” he says. “The industry needs Greg Dyke more than he needs the industry,” he says. True, given Dyke has made his fortune already and doesn’t need the money.

Dyke is praised by former BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland for encouraging loyalty, passion and creativity among those who worked for him.

He is credited with cheering up the BBC during his time there, though whether he will manage to cheer up some of the TV airtime buyers at Marketing Week’s conference this week is another question.

Dyke and dumber

Many of them complained about Dyke’s supposed “dumbing down” of the BBC and its incursions into what they saw as their commercial territory through populist programming. Fame Academy, which took on ITV’s Pop Idol, came to symbolise all they saw as wrong with Dyke’s BBC after he became director-general in January 2000, which was inimical to advertisers’ interests.

“The BBC’s job is not to satisfy advertisers,” Dyke says. “I don’t know why media buyers were so worried about Fame Academy: it wasn’t very successful.

“Media buyers have been whingeing about the price of advertising for as many years as I can remember, but it doesn’t stop them buying it. They have got a view of the BBC because they are commercial buyers, but the BBC’s role is to provide services to viewers,” he says.

He doesn’t subscribe to the idea that TV advertising is in deep trouble or is a dying form of commercial promotion.

“I think the downfall of traditional channels has been exaggerated; it is pretty clear that channels will still play a significant part in the TV system in the future, but not as large a part as in the past. It is clear the BBC will flourish over the next decade and will get decently funded. The BBC channels will still be there, commercial TV will have a difficult time, but I believe those who write that personal video recorders [PVRs] and fragmentation will destroy the commercial market will find it is not the case. Advertiser-funded television has a significant future, as has pay-TV.

“ITV has had a pretty desperate decade really, both in ratings and revenue. It has been a tough five years for the broadcaster. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the future of advertiser-funded TV is disastrous.

“I think channels such as ITV that get a 20 to 30 per cent share of the commercial market will remain pretty strong, though not as strong as in the past.”

Media giants

Dyke has argued that TV in the future would be controlled by two 800lb gorillas – the BBC and Sky. “My argument was that politicians couldn’t continue to treat ITV as a cash-cow, ITV had to be fit to compete, and that is what Ofcom has recognised and done. There is no doubt the regulatory burden is lighter. Ofcom did its own analysis and came to its own conclusions.”

Another Dyke fan, Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan, praises Dyke’s support for marketing: “He was quite visionary in seeing that the importance of marketing was going to grow in a digital world. Greg was always saying there’s no point in making the programmes and not telling people about them.

“There was a latent energy in the BBC, people could have been contributing more than they were allowed to. With Greg, there was a real sense of unleashing and unlocking.”

Crisis? What crisis?

The morale of UK TV staff at the two big terrestrial channels has rarely been lower now Dyke is out of the picture. Dyke says of current BBC director-general Mark Thompson’s cuts of up to 6,000 staff: “When the BBC started [the cuts], I phoned the BBC finance director and said: ‘Is there a crisis?” He said: ‘No’.”

“I wouldn’t have done it that way, I don’t see the point of destroying the morale of an organisation. It must affect programme quality. The strategy could possibly make programmes better, but if you make 15 per cent cuts across an organisation, including programme departments, it is hard to see how you can make programmes better initially. It is not something that I would have done.

“You can always take costs out, the question is what the damage is, and you have to weigh that up. We reduced overheads from 24 per cent to 12 per cent and we tried to do it with humanity and cleverly without destroying the morale of the organisation.

“I know the BBC is clearly an unhappy place at the moment. Morale at ITV isn’t much better either.”

Dyke displays little love for TV ads – he merely says that they are better in the UK than the US. His favourite ad? “Er… the one with the bits of car that hit against each other…” That’ll be the Honda Cog ad.

Some have wondered whether the Mordechai Vanunu lookalike is the right man to chair a conference about the future of TV advertising. He is seen by them as a programmer of the terrestrial past rather than an advertising expert of the medium’s digital future.

To be fair, Dyke presided over the launch of the BBC’s digital channels and Freeview. He says: “What is interesting in the multi-channel world is that the main players – BBC, ITV and Sky – have moved into it now, and once they moved in with cross-promotional power, they have become big players. The funny thing is, the fragmenters, such as UKTV Gold, are being fragmented themselves.”

Programme of success

He adds: “That means the bigger channels are still very large players and remain so because they have the programmes. The future is in programmes, but don’t underestimate the role of marketing.”

Any advertiser has to have respect for a programmer who can pull in viewers and increase ratings, even if some of his most significant contributions were at the BBC.

Dyke’s sheer lack of tact, his opinionated stance and his unconventional style seem the perfect qualities for a TV conference chairman, though not, perhaps, for an ITV chief executive.

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