A safe pair of hands, or a dash for cash?

So, yet another week in which ITV has been making, rather than merely
reporting on, the news. While the upheaval must be very unsettling for
all those working there, they can at least derive one consolation. If
three such big media beasts as Sir Richar…

So, yet another week in which ITV has been making, rather than merely reporting on, the news. While the upheaval must be very unsettling for all those working there, they can at least derive one consolation. If three such big media beasts as Sir Richard Branson, James Murdoch and now Michael Grade have all been scrambling for control of it, ITV must be far from a burned-out case.

In the event, Grade is the only one to have got his hands on the train set (as Torin Douglas puts it) and we must now find out whether he is the "change agent" he purports to be.

Any assessment of Grade’s suitability has to start on a high note. He is, literally, genetically programmed for the world of television and entertainment. Like Greg Dyke and (more controversially) John Birt, he is also one of a rarefied circle with extensive experience of the UK TV environment as a whole, having worked as much in public sector broadcasting as he has in commercial TV.

He’s fleet of foot and highly personable (unlike the outgoing chairman and, some would add, the late chief executive of ITV). His earlier career achievements testify to his strength in programming and scheduling, which are widely identified as two of the current management’s most glaring weaknesses. Finally, he has amply demonstrated, in his stewardship of the BBC, the qualities needed to turn an organisation around against seemingly impossible odds.

But is this skillset, formidable though it is, enough to do the job at ITV? Attention has inevitably focused on Grade’s age, 63, and how he defines the task ahead of him. He himself has talked of "one last job", and later clarified his job spec as executive chairman by saying that a chief executive would be appointed in due course, though not within two years.

That implies a fix, rather than a strategic solution to ITV’s long-term decline. Even so, there is a lot he can do in two years to set the station on a more stable course.

And that has to be good news for advertisers and agencies. Only last week, Bernard Balderston, representing the UK’s largest advertiser Procter & Gamble, enthusiastically endorsed the operational team at the top of ITV, but expressed concern that they might not be given long enough time to prove themselves.

Grade’s appointment seems calculated to allay Balderston’s fears. He will give the shadowy marzipan layer the gravitas it currently lacks, and looks well placed to broker an end to the mess that is contract rights renewal. He also has the stature to stand up to the likes of James Murdoch, ITV’s biggest shareholder.

But how much of a new broom will he actually be? Despite his obvious qualities, there is a nagging doubt that Grade is "an old man in a hurry", that the up-to-£8m he may earn has been overly influential in persuading him to take the job and that the changes he may make will be cosmetically persuasive rather than structurally appropriate for the long term.

Let’s hope not, for ITV’s sake.

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