Raymond Snoddy on media: It's curtain up on Grade's magic show

Now that Michael Grade has been executive chairman of ITV for more than 24 hours, it's time to look for evidence of a resurgence in the company's fortunes.

If you think it unreasonable to expect firm evidence by today, Friday will do. After all, Grade is believed to be able to command more TV magic than appears in the average Harry Potter movie, and he will have to justify that £8m pay package somehow.

As a director of Charlton Athletic FC, Grade will know that new managers are, at the very least, expected to win their first game in charge. And, like Alan Pardew at rock-bottom Charlton, the only way is up for Grade, with ITV1's viewing share falling below 20% for the first time last year.

There are already signs that the great magician has timed his move to perfection, and that the train was starting to move in the right direction just before he hopped on.

The first piece of good news in his in-tray comes from Starcom UK. According to the media agency, ITV hasn't done as badly in the annual advertising round as was expected, with about half the money that would have been lost through the Contracts Rights Renewal mechanism finding its way to ITV's digital channels. From ITV's point of view, that is exactly what the digital channels were set up for, and, as a business, it is ITV's overall performance that should now be judged.

Renegotiation of the CRR will be high on Grade's agenda, and if there is one thing he can do, it is lobby and negotiate. At Channel 4 he led the way in making sure it won the right from ITV to sell its own advertising and also persuaded Tony Blair there would be no Treasury-inspired privatisation. Don't bet against the CRR being gone, or at least significantly watered down, before Christmas.

Another little boost for Grade is evident in the City. Goldman Sachs has just reiterated its belief that ITV will show 'sector-leading earnings growth from 2008'. The stockbroker says that ITV's share price could rise to 130p compared with its current 105.75p because of easing of pressure from both multi-channel and the advertising cycle. Goldmans is so confident, partly it seems, because it is convinced Grade will not spend too much money on programmes.

One then has to add in the sort of things that can never appear in any broker's spreadsheet - the feel-good factor. Grade can walk the walk - complete with red socks - talk the talk and inspire people to produce that little bit extra. In the end, the Grade factor could make all the difference. It is also what Pardew will have to do if Charlton is to avoid the drop.

However, there is something Grade should get his mind round as soon as possible - by Thursday at the latest. It's time to tackle the wretched gaming programmes that ITV seems so committed to because of the £20m profits involved. As Gerald Ratner found to his cost, you can only treat your customers as suckers for so long, before the damage to brand and reputation becomes permanent.

ITV can run programme segments such as The Mint and Quizmania if it wants and charge premium call rates for entrants. But what it shouldn't do is irk its customers by charging them such rates even when they don't get through to play.

Regulators are already looking into the issue and there is more than an even chance that the practice will be banned anyway. So, it presents Grade with a chance to take the moral high ground by launching an internal investigation to find a fairer way to run the games or, if that is not possible, drastically reduce their prominence. After all, the challenges he faces are quite big enough without having to contend with allegations that ITV is running 'the great TV swindle'.


- Interactive games channel ITV Play made its debut on 31 March 2006 on ITV1 with quiz show The Mint.

- Play launched as a stand-alone channel on Freeview on 19 April and was introduced on the Sky Digital platform from 24 July. It invites viewers to call or text in to answer questions or solve puzzles and win money. Other shows in the strand include Quizmania, Play Along and Play DJ.

- The channel has come under fire as it costs at least 75p to play, even if the caller is not put through to the studio, although it is free to enter via the website (www.itv.com/play).

- Players are restricted to 150 calls or web entries every 24 hours, so the maximum spend for a BT caller is £112.50 a day.

- Presenters include former Big Brother winner Brian Dowling and Debbie King, perhaps most famous for her TV debut in the video for Pink Floyd's The Wall - at the grand old age of four.


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