Dawn Airey, many people’s choice for the most powerful woman in television, carved out her reputation at Five, and now, five years after leaving, she is poised to return.
The announcement last week that Airey – who was promoted to the ITV board in February – would be leaving caught many in the industry by surprise, not least incumbent Five chief executive Jane Lighting, who apparently knew nothing about the appointment and has subsequently left.
Airey will rejoin Five as chief executive and chairman by May next year, and has been tasked with rejuvenating the TV channel by the broadcaster’s owner RTL Group.
The woman who joined ITV as managing director of global content just eight months ago must be hoping to do the same to her career, which some suggest has floundered since she left Five in 2003.
As one broadcasting executive says: “It’s pretty clear that she’s made a hash of her career over the past four or five years. Some of that is her fault, some of it not. This is a definite opportunity to relaunch herself and possibly her last move, but there are tremendous opportunities within RTL.” Another suggests that she has “burnt many bridges” and must make this move count.
Her time at BSkyB, where she was director of all the satellite company’s non-sports channels, was solid if unspectacular, although Beattie McGuinness Bungay co-founder Andrew McGuinness points to a “successful” repositioning of its Sky Movies offering.
Yet Airey was unlikely to make chief executive, and in early 2007 departed for doomed media start-up Iostar as chief executive, lasting eight days before discovering funding was not in place. An embarrassing slip into obscurity was averted by ITV executive chairman Michael Grade who, assembling a team of high-profile “Galacticos” to spearhead the broadcaster’s turnaround, threw Airey a lifeline.
Airey – nicknamed Scary Airey and Zulu Dawn – is, according to those close to her, ferociously ambitious and motivated by money. Some suggest the package put together by RTL chief Gerhard Zeiler “dwarfs” her £450,000 ITV salary.
But others believe it is either a realisation that the chief executive role at ITV was not guaranteed or simply that the Five brand, which she helped launch as director of programming, is in her blood.
“Conspiracy theories” that her appointment is linked to RTL’s speculated purchase of ITV are “totally” wide of the mark, says Christine Walker, founder of Walker Media. “Her appointment is much more to do with Gerhard Zeiller’s view that she is the best in town.”
Walker, who worked with Airey at Five, adds: “I have no doubt that her move to Five is a good one. Five is her spiritual home and the ‘pull’ was too great to resist. Privately, I know that RTL has been trying to get her to return for ages but she felt duty bound to get her ideas up and running at ITV.”
She says that although Five has made “reasonable” progress with two new digital channels, it has “probably the greatest opportunity” of the terrestrial channels to grow, while ITV “faces an inexorable decline over time”.
Bring Five alive
Jim Hytner, who worked with Airey as Five marketing director, believes she will bring back a profile the broadcaster has missed. “You can have the BBC without a great figurehead but you can’t run a challenger brand without an inspirational figure,” he says.
ITV, stinging from Airey’s “rebuke”, is looking to hold her to a maximum 12 months gardening leave and exploring legal action, leaving Five in limbo. Yet changes are already afoot. With Lighting gone, executive sales director Mark White steps up to become interim chief executive, over managing director of content and marketing Lisa Opie, who was appointed by former Flextech colleague Lighting 18 months ago. Opie has also resigned.
When she starts, Airey must quell a growing industry feeling that the terrestrial channel is no longer a “must buy” for advertisers, and once again show that Five is about more than “football, films and fucking”.