MEDIA ANALYSIS FORUM: As Eyre leaves the South Bank, will ITV be deflated? Wanted: new chief executive of ITV. But is it a poisoned chalice? Alasdair Reid reports

Who’s going to be brave enough to fill Richard Eyre’s shoes? When the announcement was first made two years ago that Eyre was to become ITV’s first chief executive, two responses tended to follow. First, ’what a stroke of genius on ITV’s part’, and second, ’what a potentially dodgy decision on Richard’s part’. This, supposedly, was television’s hospital pass, the ultimate in responsibility without real power. Supposedly the network’s three main owners, Carlton, United News & Media and Granada, were like a trio of hoodlums in a B-movie, just itching for the opportunity to bump each other off.

Who’s going to be brave enough to fill Richard Eyre’s shoes? When

the announcement was first made two years ago that Eyre was to become

ITV’s first chief executive, two responses tended to follow. First,

’what a stroke of genius on ITV’s part’, and second, ’what a potentially

dodgy decision on Richard’s part’. This, supposedly, was television’s

hospital pass, the ultimate in responsibility without real power.

Supposedly the network’s three main owners, Carlton, United News & Media

and Granada, were like a trio of hoodlums in a B-movie, just itching for

the opportunity to bump each other off.



Everyone agreed that if anyone could succeed, it would be Eyre - and

succeed he duly did. Well, up to a point. He succeeded in extracting

budget commitments from the big three; he succeeded in setting up a

credible management structure that centralised decision-making on all

the important marketing, programme commissioning and scheduling issues.

And in John Hardie, ITV marketing director, and David Liddiment, the

channel’s programme director, he attracted talent to ensure that the

right decisions were taken. He created a new sense of optimism about

ITV’s future; he lobbied successfully for the Government to give it

leeway when it came to issues such as scrapping the News at Ten. Last,

but not least, he set tough audience targets and went about meeting

them.



But it’s when you look at these audience targets that you begin to

appreciate just how good Eyre’s timing might be - there are many in the

industry who believe that the 40 per cent peaktime share target will not

be met by the end of 2000. It was always going to be downhill from here

on in and Eyre has managed to squeeze every last drop of success out of

the role. A successor will not only fail, but he or she will always

suffer from comparison with Eyre.



In short, this time around, the job might be even harder to fill. Jim

Marshall, chief executive of MediaVest, certainly believes that could be

true. When times are tough - and ITV backs were very much to the wall a

couple of years ago - people will make promises that they’re tempted to

break. And then there’s the fact that the broadcast environment has

changed. Marshall explains: ’The truce within ITV - especially between

Carlton and Granada - has looked fragile and will disappear when the

prospect of further ITV consolidation becomes a genuine reality. Both

Carlton and Granada have been under pressure because of the relatively

poor performance of ONdigital. One of Eyre’s great successes was in

persuading the ITV companies to increase programme budgets - this might

be increasingly hard to sustain. The other factor could be a recovery in

BBC fortunes. Greg Dyke is competitive and populist in his approach to

programming and he will almost certainly go after ITV.’



Any assessment of the difficulty of the task facing ITV will depend on

your view of how solid Eyre’s legacy will be. Did he win the battles

that matter once and for all, and does he bequeath a structure than can

be run by lesser mortals?



Mick Desmond, chief executive of Granada media sales, argues that the

important matters have all been secured. He adds: ’One of the greatest

successes is a commitment to budgets three years in advance. That allows

for genuine planning and must give everyone confidence that things will

remain very settled on that front. I think we need someone to work with

David Liddiment and allow him to get on with his job, protecting his

creative role from the shareholders.’



But what about those who believe all the good work could be threatened

by renewed internal tensions at the network? Desmond can’t see it: ’We

are more willing to work for it because we have seen what can be

achieved - we have had two years of genuine revenue growth. There is a

huge vested interest in maintaining a common purpose. The theory behind

some of the manoeuvring of old within ITV was that you might risk a bit

to gain a lot. Now I think that everyone accepts you will lose a lot to

gain a little.’



If Eyre has any niggling disappointments about his reign, it must be the

fact that he failed to win over the Incorporated Society of British

Advertisers - and pleasing advertisers surely ranked pretty highly in

his job description. Will the new chief have to work on this? Is ISBA

hard, if not impossible to please? Bob Wootton, ISBA’s director of media

and advertising affairs, says you have to appreciate the pressure most

advertisers are under. He comments: ’Retailers are asking manufacturers

how much lower prices are going to be next year. Then those

manufacturers turn to ITV, which tells them how much more expensive it’s

going to be next year. That is bound to lead to a tense situation.



’Broadly, though, we have been very supportive. For instance, we have

been quiet about ITV’s total share, which has been heading in the wrong

direction, as opposed to its share of peaktime. I have been getting the

feeling that ITV is preparing to detach itself from the 40 per cent

share of peak commitment. My only hope is that ITV is both ambitious and

rigorous in its selection procedure.’



Do rival channels hope for the opposite? Michael Jackson, the chief

executive of Channel 4, points out that his channel continues to

outperform the market whatever the state of ITV’s fortunes. But he can’t

see ITV returning to its old ways. He states: ’The most important thing

is that ITV recognised something had to be done or a continued decline

was inevitable. ITV has got its act together and a lot of sensible

things have been done, but they’ve not been things that have been all

that extraordinary - good leadership will provide them. We don’t tend to

worry about what other channels are up to - you have to concentrate on

what you’re doing yourself and plough your own furrow.’



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