Editorial: ITV craving a leader, but who will take on the job?

It's a measure of the strife bedevilling ITV that nobody who might make a decent fist of leading it seems to want to touch the job with a sterilised bargepole.

What began as high drama has descended into low farce. First came the collapse of the broadcaster's protracted talks with the former BSkyB boss Tony Ball, who had been the frontrunner for the chief executive role. Then, Sir Crispin Davis, having been the leading contender to be ITV's chairman (and the man who would have taken the lead in the appointment of a chief executive), said he did not want the role because he believed it to be too "high profile".

This week, the latest frontrunner, the airline tycoon Sir Michael Bishop, also pulled out, reportedly because he considered the job to be too complex for the time he could afford to devote to it.

Their caution is hardly surprising. With the autumn trading season underway, ITV's lack of leadership (even with interim chief executive, John Cresswell, belatedly in place) is provoking alarm among advertisers. Meanwhile, shareholders are becoming restive as the company sheds jobs and haemorrhages millions of pounds amid the ad slump.

Today, ITV desperately needs somebody with insight and vision to safeguard its place in a rapidly fragmenting media world. Blockbusters such as The X Factor may still deliver, but multichannel TV and the internet continue to erode viewing figures and too many new shows have flopped.

Any incoming leader has a big dilemma. ITV's huge fixed costs, debt and pension fund liabilities have made cost-cutting essential, this week's bond issue notwithstanding. Yet a drastic cut in spending on content is bound to result in audience figures continuing to drop - and revenue along with it.

The ITV board must act quickly and firmly if the com-pany is not to give the impression of drifting aimlessly. As Oscar Wilde might have said: to lose one would-be chairman may be regarded as misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.

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