Last week, the question was enlivened further by the arrival in London of the man "who saved CBS" and "who discovered George Clooney".
Leslie Moonves, the president and ceo of the CBS Corporation, is credited with taking CBS to number one in the ratings. Earlier, as head of Warner Brothers Television, he cast Clooney in ER and brought together Jennifer Aniston and the other five Friends. Last week he spoke at the Royal Television Society conference and at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch.
Moonves is the ideal candidate to rescue ITV, but of course that’s not going to happen – he already earns $20m (£10.6m) a year and has a US network and global production house. Not only is he not in for the job, he’s not interested in buying ITV either.
The big question for the headhunters trying to replace Allen is whether they should be looking for a money person to satisfy the City, which is demanding a radical shake-up and quicker, bigger profits – or a programme person, who can revitalise the output and improve audience figures.
Allen is famously a money man – accountant turned caterer, turned TV boss – which is why many people now yearn for a programme person to lead ITV. He has successfully cut costs and raised profits, but is blamed for the lacklustre programming and the introduction of Contract Rights Renewal (CRR), which is now leaching money out of ITV as ratings fall. What many forget is that without CRR, the ITV merger would never have happened at all.
Moonves, by contrast, is a programme man through and through. So how did he turn round CBS, which was languishing in third place when he took it over in 1995? The network had many of the problems now associated with ITV, including a declining audience and an ageing profile – he quipped that its sexiest star was Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote.
Moonves says he rebuilt the schedule, brick by brick, with shows such as Everyone Loves Raymond, Survivor, and CSI. He’s articulate and funny, exudes confidence and has the track record to back it up. He still reads all the scripts and has a big say in the casting of the network’s top shows.
So does ITV need a programme person? Ideally, yes – but people like Moonves are few and far between. He himself doesn’t believe programme experience is essential. He told me that people who’ve run private finance houses have successfully made the switch – and that he relies heavily on his chief financial officer at CBS.
It’s hard to see how a programme person would have coped better than Allen with ITV’s regulatory and financial issues. The question is what sort of chief executive you need in the new environment, where traditional ad-funded networks have been hit by the express train of digital media.
Andy Duncan of Channel 4 has shown you don’t need to be a programme man to thrive in the new environment, provided you’re working with a brilliant programme director like Kevin Lygo. Indeed, one of Duncan’s cleverest tricks has been to capitalise on CRR, beefing up Channel 4’s afternoon schedule to mop up lots of the ITV advertising money now looking for a home.
Duncan has ruled himself out of the ITV race, so who else? Some would like ITV to hire a double act – former Ofcom boss Stephen Carter as chief executive, with Lygo in charge of programmes. First at Five and then Channel Four, Lygo exuded confidence – that’s just what ITV needs, but Lygo would not be the person to deal with the City and regulators.
A money man who has ruled himself in is Roger Parry, formerly of Clear Channel, More and Aegis, and many years ago a programme maker at the BBC. He would obviously understand the City but would need to work with a strong programme head.
Michael Jackson’s name has been publicly canvassed, with or without his knowledge. He is a programme man who ran BBC1 and BBC2 and has headed US networks – but has no experience of the City and UK commercial life. Dawn Airey from BSkyB has both programme and commercial experience, but has never had to deal with the City – though she did have to cope with two big shareholders at Five.
Would it take much to turn ITV round? Under Allen, it now – belatedly – has a digital strategy and ITV2 and ITV3 are performing well. It has bought Friends Reunited, though some think other digital companies would have made more sense. It certainly needs some new hits on ITV1 and a new team is in place to deliver that.
But again, the comparison with CBS is instructive. In some ways, ITV is in a stronger position commercially than CBS, even now. In ratings and advertising terms, CBS has several big competitors of similar size – ABC, NBC and Fox – whereas, according to Allen, ITV is bigger than its five biggest commercial rivals put together.
If Moonves were in charge, you get the feeling that ITV itself would be the only game in town.