It was a move that no one saw coming. ITV, desperate to restore its fortunes, had been wooing Airey, who is credited with turning around Channel 5, to become the new chief executive of ITV -– the UK's largest terrestrial broadcaster.
Airey will take up the position of managing director of Sky Networks and will be responsible for all non-sports content.
Her hiring is major coup for BSkyB chief executive Tony Ball and is a clear signal that his ambitions for Sky are large. Sky is emerging as the UK's sixth channel and, with its involvement in the BBC's forthcoming new free-to-air digital terrestrial service Freeview, this march of progress can only increase.
At Channel 5, which last week relaunched itself as Five, Airey reversed a reputation for cheap programming and has dramatically changed the fortunes of the channel by introducing quality US dramas, arts and historical programming. This has led to Five's audience share rising to 6.5% from 5.7% last year.
Her move to Sky will come as a huge blow to ITV shareholders Carlton Communications and Granada. ITV fortunes have seen some improvement of late after a difficult year following the downturn in TV advertising and the collapse of ITV Digital. However, it recently reported improved advertising revenue for October, up 6%, and a boost in the programming budget for ITV to £825m.
It had been thought that this week they would be announcing the appointment of Airey to succeed David Liddiment, who left earlier this year.
Her arrival at a part of Rupert Murdoch's empire will spark fresh speculation about the media baron's intentions towards Five. Under the forthcoming communications bill, Murdoch would be able to bid for it.
Reports have persistently suggested he is interested in the channel, which is 65% controlled by the Bertlesmann-owned RTL group with the remaining 35% held by Lord Clive Hollick's United Business Media.
Airey leaves Five after six-and-a-half years. She joined in 1996 as director programmes. She had previously been head of arts and entertainment at Channel 4.
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