No heir apparent at ITV as chief executive bows out

Richard Eyre’s departure from ITV leaves a vacuum at the heart of the network. Yet rumour has it that his heir’s role could be more limited.

So he’s off. The man who, in the teeth of fierce opposition, re-organised one of this country’s great broadcasting organisations and left it better placed to face the multichannel digital future. He will leave his post at the end of this week, prompting fevered speculation about how long his legacy will survive under a successor.

No, not John Birt – Richard Eyre. The departure of ITV’s chief executive won’t cause as many waves as that of the BBC director-general. He’s not been there as long, his organisation is smaller and less central to UK life, and his name has yet to become an “ism”. But for commercial broadcasters and the advertising business, Eyre’s premature departure could have a profound effect, for the leadership he has provided ITV will not be replaced easily. That is, if the owners of ITV want it replaced.

For the moment, Eyre leaves ITV in good shape. It nearly hit its 39 per cent peak-time share target for 1999, albeit at the cost of running Who Wants To Be A Millionaire three times on Christmas Day (a move which may have hastened the “wear-out” of the phenomenon, which is now being beaten by EastEnders despite having produced a &£500,000 winner). In the process, ITV widened the gap on BBC1.

Eyre has laid down the ratings targets for the coming year and grasped the nettle by admitting ITV won’t hit its once-hoped-for 40 per cent peak-time share. Some see it as a sign of failure, but most buyers regard this early acknowledgement as welcome realism.

Let’s leave aside the fact that ITV’s definition of peak-time has always been an artificial one (it excludes news bulletins, even though the Independent Television Commission (ITC) requires one of ITV’s to be in peak-time).

The revised share target – 38.5 per cent – takes into account the growth of digital TV, and has prompted another onslaught from BSkyB as it urges ITV bosses to reconsider their decision to withhold ITV and ITV2 from the SkyDigital platform.

Eyre argues that to do so would not only cost the network millions of pounds in transmission costs but also boost Sky’s coffers by about &£12m.

He says there’s been no talk among ITV shareholders about reconsidering the issue. However, anyone who saw Granada Media chief executive Steve Morrison and United News & Media broadcasting and entertainment chief executive Malcolm Wall debating the policy at the Edinburgh TV Festival last autumn will know the big three ITV companies are not of one mind.

This is the measure of Eyre’s considerable achievement at ITV over the past two years.

It is not widely known how often he has crossed swords with the men who control ITV’s big three companies: Carlton chairman Michael Green, Lord Hollick, chairman of United, and Granada chief executive Charles Allen. The individual companies’ interests do not always coincide with those of the ITV Network as a whole (let alone each other’s, as Granada’s attempt to muscle in on the Carlton/United marriage demonstrates).

Eyre has been prepared to stand up to them more often than has been good for him, even though they have benefited from his success.

For example, United would like to increase the amount of programming it gets onto the network. It would be good for its production arm. But Eyre and ITV’s director of programmes, David Liddiment, do not believe the network could meet its ratings targets if it bought more United programmes. That’s bad news for United’s broadcasting arm, which generates ad revenue. Only by standing up to its owners can ITV prosper.

Under Eyre, the job of chief executive has been to set strategy and then deliver the ratings it has promised advertisers. As far as possible, he has protected Liddiment from the big companies’ wish to interfere in programming decision-making, allowing the head of programmes to concentrate on getting the schedule right. As his predecessor Marcus Plantin will testify, combining the two jobs does not work.

It was Eyre who took the brave decision to set ambitious ratings targets – to get ITV out of the demoralising spiral of simply managing decline.

It was he who took politicians’ flak over the decision to move News at Ten, arguing the case with the ITC and the Culture Media & Sport Committee, chaired by Gerald Kaufman. His patient, but firm, advocacy succeeded where Andrew Quinn and Greg Dyke had failed.

I’m told Eyre would have liked the ITV Network Centre to have become even more independent of ITV’s owners by appointing an independent chairman, unconnected to any of the companies. The example of Vanni Treves at Channel 4 was cited, but the idea proved too much for the big three.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News.

The question now is whether Eyre’s successor will be given as much authority and independence as he achieved. The headhunters charged with drawing up a shortlist for the job are said to be delighted with the calibre of people who are interested. Eyre has raised the profile of the job, as well as his own, during his tenure.

Managing directors of creative TV, radio and consumer products companies are said to be in the running. But the widely reported suggestion that ITV’s owners are looking for an executive from an ad agency or media buying company could mean the role will be more limited in future. This may be so it does not overshadow the role of Liddiment, who has been a big success in his own right, or so that the ITV shareholders can get more of their own way.

Who will set ITV’s strategy now – the three big companies, who cannot even agree on their ownership, or the new chief executive? At the moment, ITV is in need of a strong and independent leader even more than in the past.

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