Charles’ grip on the throne looks perilous

So the other shoe has dropped at ITV. Last week, the industry was reverberating with chief executive Charles Allen’s tough talk on CRR; now he has acted tough in ruthlessly discarding his able ITV Broadcasting lieutenant Mick Desmond.

One of the double ironies about the boardroom putsch is that Desmond’s dispatch comes in the very week that Broadcasting achieved its best weekly performance in a very long time. Across the board, ITV’s ‘family’ of channels notched up an average 27 per cent share, meaning viewing was up nearly four per cent year on year, a huge increment in the multi-channel context. Particularly pleasing was the resurgence of the family keystone, ITV1, against BBC1. A shame, advertisers might think, to drop the pilot of that nascent success.

The second irony is that Simon Shaps is in nominal charge of the new regime – to outward appearances a case of putting the asylum into the hands of the proverbial madman. Overly harsh? At the core of ITV1’s recent problems was a summer of production flops (Celebrity Wrestling and Rock around the Block to name but two). For this, director of programmes Nigel Pickard must shoulder part of the responsibility. But Pickard has been marginalised by the restructure and is almost certainly at the exit door himself. In any case, he cannot be entirely blamed for a policy which resulted in Granada Production hogging an unhealthy 60 per cent of the programme content (including the long list of flops). And who has now effectively assumed Pickard’s powers? Step forward the former chief executive of Granada Production, Simon Shaps.

These ironies aside, the wider context of the ITV restructure is a power struggle between the ‘wets’, represented by Desmond, Graham Duff and Pickard, and the hardliners – ultimately Allen himself – in which the wets have been trounced. The wets favoured a more thoughtful, conciliatory approach towards advertisers, exemplified in the appointment of the affable Justin Sampson as director of customer relationship management. This policy, though based on the realistic premise that advertisers increasingly have an alternative to ITV, suffered from a fatal flaw. It took time to work and time is exactly what Allen does not have. His programme is necessarily more short-term and fixated on City approval. Seeing that the figures weren’t going to add up properly (one good reason for his recent outburst about the iniquities of CRR), he has effectively taken personal operational control. This, rather than the incidental benefits of cost-cutting, is surely the real motive for him firing his finance director, moving into Network Centre at Grays Inn Road and obliterating Desmond’s role. In Shaps and Ian McCulloch, former chief operating officer, now commercial director, he has two reliable company placemen unlikely to query his judgement. But they won’t be able to save him if that judgement proves wrong. There are no more excuses: the next head is Allen’s own.

As for advertisers and agencies, they can expect a hard time in the forthcoming negotiating season. McCulloch, whatever his qualities, is not the cosy, account man type. He, like Allen, will be betting that, in the short term, advertisers don’t have a real choice.

Is that a sign of traditional ITV arrogance or merely desperation?

Stuart Smith, Editor

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