ITV gets turbulence at top down to a fine art

Only when the boardroom turmoil at ITV is resolved can the broadcaster really celebrate the success it is witnessing at ground level

Everything appears rosy in ITV’s garden at the moment. Not only has the broadcaster just given the green light to a new drama by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Alan Plater and commissioned four new episodes of Survival – one of Anglia’s legendary programme strands that we all thought was extinct – advertising revenue in December is forecast to be up by 4% year on year.

Groundhog day, surely?

Er, not quite. To bring us back to reality with a bump you have to read programme boss Peter Fincham’s recent thoughts on ITV, public service broadcasting and arts programming in which he hinted that there is no room in an £870m annual programme budget for a single arts series such as the South Bank Show.

But doesn’t ITV realise the marketing industry actually wants a few more targeted, more obviously upmarket shows and has complained vigorously in the past about wanting to see more reasons to attract viewers in the A and B social classes?

Leaving aside the obvious dangers of broadcasting an arts-free channel and earning the eternal ire of Lord Melvyn Bragg, ITV is doing remarkably well on ground level, at least.

Many of the dials are now pointing in the right direction. Next month’s projected 4% rise in advertising revenue is the first since June 2008 – a month boosted by the Euro 2008 football championships in Austria and Switzerland – while targets for cost-cutting and savings are being met, according to the management, although not many people believe that ITV is yet as efficient as it could be.

Yet the old adage that advertising levels dance to the twin tunes of corporate profitability and the general state of the economy is unlikely to be overturned anytime soon.

Digital extremists who claimed that ITV’s advertising revenue would never return to the level it reached before the UK entered recession may not be eating their words; search has taken its inevitable slice out of the total advertising pot. But ITV has reasons to be cheerful when it comes to revenues at ITV.com, which are up more than 45% and have already reached £16m.

And the flagship commercial broadcaster has reasons to be optimistic about its performance on the ground over the next 12 months, particularly with a slimmed down cost base and the World Cup in South Africa to look forward to.

All this positive sentiment makes the continuing chaos at the top of the organisation increasingly difficult to explain.
Michael Grade, who certainly knows a great deal about the television industry, is leaving under a bit of a cloud, although the usual quotes will be written for him about “the right time to go”.

Following in Grade’s footsteps is John Cresswell, in effect the acting chief executive, who is not seen as part of the future at ITV.
A trio of departures could be completed if Fincham becomes a top candidate for the chief executive’s chair at Channel 4 – a job he narrowly missed out on last time.

Doesn’t ITV realise the marketing industry actually wants a few more targeted, more obviously upmarket shows and has complained vigorously in the past about wanting to see more reasons to attract viewers in the A and B social classes?

There’s no doubt about it, ITV shareholders are certainly pursuing an interesting strategy in orchestrating a top-level clear-out of an organisation that is just about to turn the corner.

And who is lined up to replace Grade as ITV chairman? A bunch of superannuated bankers and assorted City grandees, representatives from the very sector that caused ITV such grief in the first place. Even the broadcaster’s drama scriptwriters could scarcely make it up.

But one thing ought to be clear. If it matters at all who occupies the two top positions in a broadcasting organisation – and it might not – then complementary skills are preferable. And at least one of the two incumbents ought to have a good feel for the media and programme-making in general.

The situation at Channel 4 clearly demonstrates this. Lord Terry Burns, the former top Treasury civil servant and avid football supporter, is a perfectly sensible choice as chairman of a C4 that is probably now entering its cost-cutting phase. If Burns has any sense he will want someone schooled in programme-making culture beside him. Step forward, Peter Fincham because the current combination of entrepreneur Luke Johnson and marketing man Andy Duncan cannot be judged an outstanding success.

The same theory applies to ITV. If one of the bankers sneaks in as chairman then it would be wise to have a chief executive who knows a thing or two about the television industry. This would apply particularly if there is a director of programmes vacancy.

Get it sorted out guys so that we can see more Alan Plater dramas, episodes of Survival and maybe even the occasional arts programme.

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