Capture of Airey is an ideal spur for a Murdoch-Five deal

You don't buy weapons of mass destruction and then lock them in a display cabinet because they look pretty. And you don't hire Dawn Airey to oversee a few movie deals and a couple of US imports, writes Claire Beale.

So Sky's Dawn raid at the weekend was swiftly followed by some aggressive programming proposals, which should give Airey something to do until she takes over from the chief executive Tony Ball in a year or two (don't tell me she took the job without checking out Ball's chair for size).

Kick 'em while they're down is a fair policy in TV and Sky's just put the Doc into ITV. Who's to say Airey would have been the best choice for ITV. She is, after all, still dogged with the "football and fucking" tag that launched Channel 5. But ITV pinned its hopes so indiscreetly on Airey that it now looks directionless. And Airey's decision not to take the job has been leapt on as further evidence of political warfare in ITV. The second choices that have already been touted in the press -- Michael Grade, Michael Jackson, Peter Bazalgette, Richard Eyre, David Mansfield -- sound either hopelessly optimistic or downright daft.

Going into next year's airtime negotiations with so many question marks over its structure and programming direction is the worst possible scenario for ITV and its poor sales teams won't get any slack from the TV buyers as deals for the next few years are moulded this autumn. And now Sky is training its guns on ITV's audience with plans for up to five new channels and fresh investment in original programming. Airey is tasked with boosting subscribers to 7m, from 6.1m, by 2004, relaunching Sky One and bringing three new music channels and a general entertainment channel to air.

It's a persuasive message to be taking to the market during the negotiating season, though perhaps this fresh programming drive deserves an injection of energy in the Sky advertising department. Sky's ad team generally seems to be left to its own devices but Airey is used to working closely with Five's commercial chief, Nick Milligan. Debate on whether she'll seek to take him with her to Sky (and perhaps the Five sales contract too) will probably keep TV traders busy once the deal-making is done.

And none of this has dented speculation that Rupert Murdoch still fancies a bid for Five. RTL, its majority shareholder, was not ruling out a deal this week. Certainly unless Five manages to find a new chief executive with a strong, quality programming heritage, then its recent momentum could be lost. And Airey's departure will surely knock morale at Five, where internal frustration with the shareholder structure, particularly with Clive Hollick's United Business Media, is starting to bubble to the surface. Without Airey, Five is potentially an easier target for either partial or wholesale purchase; with Airey leading an invigorated Sky channel portfolio, the opportunities for Five within BSkyB are more tangible than ever.

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