EDITORIAL: ITV needs to forget Airey and aim for advertiser support

The news that Dawn Airey is joining BSkyB caught everyone, with the exception of Tony Ball, on the back foot. As the industry was eagerly waiting to see if Channel 5's chief executive would really jump ship for ITV, no one had seen the Sky supertanker approaching the stern. It was almost refreshing in an era of leaks, rumours and off-the-record sources to be caught so unawares by a story. Not that ITV will be feeling this way.

But just how big a disaster for the network is it?

It certainly is a disaster from a public relations perspective. You have to question ITV's wisdom in being quite so public about its preferred candidate. Former ITV chief executive Richard Eyre may not have helped Charles Allen and Michael Green when he publicly endorsed Airey at the Edinburgh TV festival, but they did nothing to slow the pace of the story.

It makes the organisation look stupid, having failed to bag its number one candidate, as well as blighting its ongoing recruitment attempts.

There can be no hiding the fact that whoever is finally wooed into the job will never have been the first choice.

Airey slipping through ITV's fingers doesn't help its already precarious standing with advertisers. Client marketers are desperately looking for some good news from ITV. While the recent boost in ratings is encouraging, a firm hand is needed to steer the company through these troubled waters.

The appointment of Airey and the news announcement to go with it would have put a halt to the downward spiral of bad news following bad news that is currently coming out of Grays Inn Road.

But it's not like ITV hasn't survived without a chief executive before.

In the past few years it has felt like the company has operated without one more than it has with one.

The more important issue as far as advertisers are concerned, is to get the programming right. Advertisers want ITV to focus its efforts on creating a strong schedule. And to this end, finding a suitable replacement for programming chief David Liddiment is the higher priority.

Airey joining Sky is potentially demoralising for ITV staff and if it isn't going to be a case of 'I'm Jim Hytner, Get Me Out Of Here!', ITV needs to move fast. It must focus on retaining its talent, especially ITV2 director of programmes David Bergg and Hytner, who has begun to make headway in the positioning of the network for both advertisers and consumers.

But above and beyond all this the priority for ITV must be to win advertiser support for the much-touted merger between Carlton and Granada.

This doesn't need a starry chief executive, just someone prepared to listen and act.

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