Media Headliner: ITV banks on Hazlitt to make real online money

Can Fru Hazlitt bring a greater sense of speed and direction to the commercial broadcaster's online offering, Ian Darby asks.

The pace of change in television is dizzying. Last week's bombshell that the BBC is to cancel Last Of The Summer Wine, just when some of us are approaching an age where the spectacle of a man in a bath careering down a hill seems amusing, was a big enough shock. Now we're having to adjust to Coronation Street in HD and the most significant changes in years to its opening credits.

Further signs of a modernising TV market were evident in the management ranks at ITV where the new chief executive, Adam Crozier, has been busy. Out goes Rupert Howell, its managing director, brand and commercial, and in comes Fru Hazlitt in the similarsounding role of managing director of commercial and online.

We're assured by ITV that Hazlitt's is an entirely new role, and, to an extent, this is the case as it combines the roles previously occupied by Howell and Ben Mc-Owen-Wilson, the managing director of online and interactive, who is also leaving the broadcaster. However, Hazlitt will oversee much of the commercial territory previously managed by Howell.

Hazlitt, who is 47, is back from the wilderness, two years after leaving the role of chief executive of GCap, with a reported pay-off of £1 million, following its merger with Global Radio. She's clearly not one to let excessive pride get in the way of a good job - as a former plc chief executive previously linked to the ITV chief executive's post, she has agreed to take a job that doesn't come with a position on the ITV plc board. However, given Howell pocketed £833,000 in salary and bonuses last year, she's likely to be adequately compensated in other ways.

From a purely financial perspective, though, Hazlitt doesn't need the work - in addition to her own wealth, she's married to the prosperous hedge fund manager Charlie Porter. She seems a remarkable character - a whirlwind of energy who has combined senior media jobs with running several marathons and an alternative career as a tremendously entertaining conference and after-dinner speaker. Arguably, her career hiatus came at the right time given that (before she met Porter) she had three children who she has since been able to spend more time with.

Hazlitt doesn't want to talk about her new role ahead of starting at ITV in August but the market seems divided about her and the impact that she might make. Starting off in sales roles at Guardian Media Group and Capital Radio before management positions at Yahoo!, Virgin Radio and then GCap, Hazlitt is renowned as a cheerleader, a dynamo and motivator who can get teams behind her, but has also been accused of creating noise rather than making a genuine impact on the media world. Interestingly for a woman who attracted headlines such as "Digital radio killed by GCap's Fru Hazlitt" (on the occasion of her closing two of GCap's digital stations at a highly sensitive time for the DAB format), she has been identified by Crozier as central to building ITV's revenue streams beyond advertising through online and, perhaps, pay-TV.

Despite the fact that she has no commercial TV experience, her supporters argue that she's perfect for the role. Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive and chairman of Walker Media, says: "My judgment of Fru is that she brings skills ITV doesn't currently have. She's got passion and energy but she's also great at engaging with senior stakeholders in the ad community and has experience of selling challenger media brands. She's also more focused and ruthless than people think."

Much will depend on the details of the strategy that Hazlitt will be expected to take to the market. However, sceptics suggest that she lacks recent hands-on online experience. She helped steer Yahoo! out of the dotcom crash of 2001 and into calmer waters but left five years ago. Some suggest that ITV would have been better off supplementing its group commercial sales director, Gary Digby (who will now report to Hazlitt and is responsible for bringing in its £1.35 billion ad revenue), with a top online player from an agency.

They suggest that Digby might not want to stay on at ITV following the latest changes (but then they said that when Howell became his boss too) and one critic of the Hazlitt appointment argues: "ITV only has four or five customers in town (in the shape of the major agency buying points). It can do all it wants to fluff things up, but clients don't really give a flying one. The only question you need to ask is what financial difference will this appointment make to ITV?"

This argument, however, ignores the likelihood that there will be both change in the way TV is traded and also in ITV's strategy. Contract Rights Renewal may eventually be relaxed and ITV has made strides to talk to clients directly. Hazlitt will face the task of building online into a real, alternative revenue stream (online ad revenues totalled a paltry £37 million last year) and the broadcaster will be faced with deciding which content, if any, it will be able to charge viewers for in a complex world of "free media" available via the BBC, Freeview and online.

Chris Locke, the group trading director at Starcom MediaVest Group, says: "Will consumers pay for The X Factor and Champions League content? ITV has these properties but hasn't done anything to monetise them with the consumer. Looking to the advertiser to fund everything is a short-term view but then there's a limit to what it can do with ITV.com. There are already so many properties online that it will be difficult."

Yet while ITV has too often resembled that reluctant old man sailing towards an uncertain future in a tin bath, there are those who are sure that Hazlitt will provide a greater sense of speed and direction. One media agency chief executive concludes: "I'm not sure what bandwidth Fru is on sometimes, but then you don't necessarily need to be a genius in this business. Sometimes you just need someone who can start the car and really get the engine revving."

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