Where now for David Elstein?

David Elstein, the former Channel Five chief executive, is expected to leave his latest venture, Sparrowhawk Media, following its £175m sale to NBC Universal.

The American broadcaster has agreed to acquire Sparrowhawk and its global portfolio of pay-TV channels from Providence Equity Partners, 3i and management shareholders, including Elstein, who says he has “more than doubled” his initial investment.

Elstein is likely to step down as chairman of Sparrowhawk, whose portfolio includes 18 non-US Hallmark Channel brands, following the sale.

The industry is now speculating about what the 40-year broadcasting veteran will turn his hand to next. One rumour – that he will take over as chief executive of Virgin Media, where he is a non-executive director, following the departure of Steve Burch – has met with incredulity.

According to one former colleague, Elstein, a non-executive director of the cable company, would not want a return to an operational role, particularly somewhere that has such an uncertain future.

“I think he’d rather cut off his arms than become chief executive of Virgin Media,” says one source. He adds that Elstein is “not the most popular” member of Virgin Media’s board, being one of the few to question certain powerful US investors. But he believes Elstein is “absolutely needed”.

Serial chairman
Instead, it is expected that Elstein will concentrate on his expanding portfolio of non-executive roles, perhaps putting some of his share of the Sparrowhawk money into other media ventures. He is chairman of DCD Media, British Screen Advisory Council, Really Useful Theatres, Screen Digest, Broadcasting Policy Group, Sports Network, Commercial Radio Companies Association and PR outfit Luther Pendragon.

As former ITV chief executive Richard Eyre points out: “He is an ideal chairman or non-executive in that you want someone who is questioning and has experience.” 

Elstein has an enviable broadcasting pedigree, starting at the BBC aged 19 as its youngest graduate trainee, having graduated from Cambridge with a double first in history. Then followed stints at LWT and Thames Television, where he become director of television, and satellite operator BSkyB, where he was director of programmes, before becoming launch chief executive of Channel 5 in 1996.

However, his outspoken nature and ferocious defending of the channel – which earned him the title “Britain’s new pornographer in chief” by the Daily Mail – seemed at odds with shareholder RTL, the European broadcaster. Elstein was eased out when RTL took control in 2000.

One acquaintance, though, believes his reputation belies the real Elstein. “He’s a really fantastic guy,” he says. “Despite coming across as being quite severe and intellectual, he has a wicked sense of humour.” However, his outspoken approach has stymied his career in the past. Elstein was the favourite to take over from John Birt as the BBC’s director-general, but his chances were effectively scuppered by his very public opposition to the licence fee.

But, as Eyre says: “Once he has a point of view he sticks rigidly to it. He is extraordinarily bright and extraordinarily pompous. One feature of the media business is that a lot of people pick up their ideas from someone else and circulate them, but he is one of the few who originates ideas. He does so by thinking deeply about issues and researching.” 

Audacious bidder
Post-Five, Elstein tried to put together a bid for ITV and was mooted as a potential chairman if an audacious takeover attempt from Virgin Media (then NTL) had succeeded at the end of last year.

Sparrowhawk acquired the Hallmark international channels in April 2005 from Crown Media, a subsidiary of the Hallmark greeting card. Elstein says the management had no intention of selling, but the NBC Universal offer was “unique”, giving the business a “more exciting and expansive future”.

The industry will be genuinely interested to see what Elstein does next.

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