Is ITV job a poisoned chalice?

Has the chief executive's post become the job nobody wants?

It has been almost three months since Charles Allen fell on his sword and the search for a new chief executive to lead the UK's largest commercial broadcaster began in earnest. And yet, the industry is no closer to knowing who will take up the reins.

Potential candidates are beginning to fall by the wayside. Last week, the ITV non-executive director Mike Clasper, the former chief of BAA, ruled himself out of the running. Clasper was a popular choice within the company and senior staff were said to be disappointed he was no longer in contention. Clasper's withdrawal from the race came after the Channel 4 boss, Andy Duncan, committed himself to the top job at Horseferry Road.

Leading investors in ITV are growing increasingly frustrated and concerned at the length of time it is taking to find Allen's successor. Some may even be wondering if getting rid of Allen was the right thing to do. In the meantime, the problems at the network have deepened. According to the most recent predictions by media agencies, ITV's flagship channel, ITV1, will be down as much as £215 million or 14 per cent in advertising revenues for 2006 compared with last year.

Despite a strong performance by its family of digital channels, ITV's total decline in ad revenue could also be down by around 14 per cent compared with the total TV market, which is set to be down around 6.5 per cent.

With ITV seemingly in a downward spiral of decline, analysts have suggested Allen's successor could be on a hiding to nothing, so is the top job in broadcasting a dead duck?

Lorna Tilbian, a media analyst at Numis Securities, believes the job brief is too broad, arguing that ITV's hunt for an everyman is harming its chances of finding the right candidate. She states: "ITV wants adland talent. That's why it's a hard brief to crack. It is looking for someone who ticks too many boxes: someone with City experience, creative flair and someone who is part of the online brigade. You need to be young and old. I don't think that person exists."

However, Roger Parry, the chairman of Future and Johnston Press, disagrees. Parry, who hasn't been shy in admitting his interest in ITV in the past as part of a private equity bid, says the job still has great appeal, but admits there are significant hurdles.

He says: "ITV no longer has the advantages of a monopoly channel. It's not an easy job. You could end up with egg on your face. But the shareholders completely understand this and are sympathetic to the fact that ITV needs to metamorphose into something different. It still has a strong franchise and great shows such as Coronation Street, The Bill and Emmerdale."

"The real issue is that you can't simultaneously satisfy shareholders, advertisers and the City," Parry argues, but adds that if ITV appoints someone with "the ability to explain their vision, the big fund managers will cut you slack".

He concludes: "If ITV delivers quality television, advertisers will find a way around Contract Rights Renewal. You have got to explain your vision to shareholders and rediscover a sense of adventure and energy behind the programmes."

Jim Marshall, the Starcom chairman, also believes the job is potentially a great opportunity: "I don't subscribe to the view that Allen was a nightmare. He did what he could do by sorting out the structure. It was a mess from the franchise changes in the early 90s. Unfortunately and inevitably, the eye was taken off the programming ball.

"If someone can provide the product vision and put energy behind that, it's a great job. ITV still delivers large peak-time audiences. It offers great potential. The television medium is a million miles from being dead. I think it needs someone who has a dedication and love of the programmes."

The view from advertisers is less enthusiastic. Ian Armstrong, the manager of customer communication at Honda, believes ITV has its problems, but firmly believes they are self-made, and that with time and the right leader, it can get back on track. However, he cautions that this is no easy task. "There is a massive amount of cultural change that would be a good opportunity to be part of. Outside of the US, ITV still has the largest production budget, and clearly there are some trading issues but that's driven by the content. If it gets its marketing and content right, it will be fine. It needs a media person rather than someone from the City."

MAYBE - Lorna Tilbian, media analyst, Numis Securities

"You need someone who combines mutually exclusive qualities, so I think the role should be split between a young chief executive and an older chairman, who will have gravitas with the regulators."

NO - Roger Parry, chairman, Future and Johnston Press

"Free-to-air TV has extraordinary challenges to face with the explosion of internet-protocol TV and analogue switch-off. At the heart of this is quality entertainment. But it's not just programming, it's selling advertising."

NO - Jim Marshall, chairman, Starcom

"ITV is potentially in a very strong position. The business is in pretty good shape in terms of its structure. It has a multichannel and new media strategy which it needs to build on. The missing jigsaw piece is the quality of the programmes."

MAYBE - Ian Armstrong, manager of customer communication, Honda

"We need someone who understands our businesses and is capable of surrounding themselves with a good team. The job is unattractive insofar as ITV has got itself into this spiral of negativity. But it's a good opportunity for the right person."

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