Is Michael Grade ITV's saviour?

A charismatic, high-profile figurehead he may be, but Grade faces a tough task revitalising ITV, writes Jeremy Lee.

So far, so good: the news that Michael Grade is joining ITV as executive chairman has at last generated some positive headlines for the broadcaster and, for the time being at least, appeared to put speculation over possible take-over bids and its long-term future in the shadows.

With his trademark braces and cigar-chomping habit, there is no doubt that Grade, a scion of a family packed with theatrical impresarios, has added some much-needed glamour to an organisation that has been tarred with the epithet 'beleaguered' for too long.

Putting aside his panache, though, the big question is whether there is enough substance to his appointment and whether he will be able to maintain the positive headlines and goodwill that greeted his arrival.

Why all the fuss?

The national newspapers went into overdrive at the news of his appointment, affording it the sort of coverage usually reserved for the acclamation of a new Pope by the papal conclave.

His arrival was also welcomed by advertisers. Roisin Donnelly, UK & Ireland head of marketing at Procter & Gamble, is just one to join the chorus of praise. 'We're delighted that Michael Grade has joined ITV. He understands the TV industry and more importantly he understands what the viewer wants,' she says.

This view is echoed by Nigel Cowlin, media director at Unilever UK & Ireland. 'Michael Grade should be good news for ITV and advertisers,' he says. 'He has a great TV pedigree, and my respect for him has grown since first seeing him operate back in the days of LWT. He has the right blend of leadership qualities, creative judgment and management experience to help ITV tackle its challenges'.

It is important for advertisers to once again have a strong ITV that can deliver mass audiences and the hope is that Grade can kick-start the process.

What should his priorities be?

Revitalising ITV1. The only way he can do this is by investing in quality programming. One of his first tasks upon arrival at ITV was to cancel a £251m share buy-back scheme, which observers have interpreted as signs of plans to increase investment in the schedule; this is long-overdue, as it has slipped to below the 20% mark.

Another priority will be to expand ITV's digital presence. Although it has a 'family' of digital channels and its broadband strategy is advanced compared with Five, there is much still to do. Not least is finding a way to integrate Friends Reunited, purchased for an eye-watering £175m, into the business.

Andy Jones, chief executive of Universal McCann, says the task is not unassailable. 'He would have to work miracles to grow ITV1's audience share, but there is plenty that he can do. ITV might still be in decline, but it need not be terminal. A strong start to 2007 is important, but evolving ITV's digital and cross-platform strategy is equally critical to the company's long-term future.'

Donnelly agrees. 'His first priority should be rebuilding the ITV1 brand to get the viewers back by injecting some exciting and creative programme ideas,' she says.

What is Grade's heritage in programming?

He is probably the only TV executive of whom most of the public has heard. He is popular with staff and talent, though his theatrical background is said to occasionally manifest itself in arrogance.

Although he has not been directly involved in scheduling for many years, Grade has an eye for a programme, which should be useful for ITV's director of television, Simon Shaps, who has been in the job less than a year and whose impact in the schedule has yet to be fully felt. Grade launched EastEnders and Neighbours on BBC One, and was responsible for The Word and backing Trainspotting while at Channel 4. However, he has had his fair share of turkeys, including being a big supporter of The Krankies while at LWT.

Are people expecting too much?

Possibly. Digital switchover and the growth in multi-channel TV homes is not going to go away. ITV1's audience is likely to continue to slip as the process continues up until 2012.

According to Martin Sambrook, global account director at Accenture Marketing Sciences, Grade will expect to be judged on performance toward the end of 2007. Nonetheless, he will provide the broadcaster with renewed confidence and his arrival will invigorate the ITV sales function, led by commercial director Ian McCulloch, at the start of the negotiation season.

What is ITV's long-term future like?

Although Grade's appointment might mean the vultures at NTL and RTL who were recently circling ITV have been scared off, it remains an attractive proposition because of the content it owns.

As Jones points out: 'Grade appears to be giving himself two years to bring in a chief executive, perhaps someone better suited to developing the broader ITV portfolio in the context of a fast-changing media landscape.'

Although Sky pulled off a masterstroke by buying nearly 20% of the company, thwarting NTL's plans, once the fuss over Grade's arrival has died down, don't be surprised to see more potential bidders, including BT, begin to emerge.

ESSENTIALS - MICHAEL GRADE

- Born in 1943, the son of Leslie Grade, a theatrical agent, and nephew of ITV founder Lew Grade and impresario Bernard Delfont.

- Joined the Daily Mirror as a sports reporter in 1960, turning up on his first day in a chauffeur-driven Bentley. In 1966 he joined the family's theatrical agency, where he managed Morecambe & Wise.

- In 1973 he joined LWT as an executive, staying for eight years before moving to Hollywood as president of Embassy Television.

- Returned to England in 1984 as controller of BBC One.

- In 1988 he joined Channel 4, where the Daily Mail famously christened him 'pornographer-in-chief'.

- Spent 1997-2000 at First Leisure Corporation, leaving as chief executive.

- Became chairman of Camelot in 2002, before joining the BBC as chairman in 2004.

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