Media Forum: Is Tony Ball right for ITV?

The former BSkyB chief could be on his way to ITV.

Tony Ball has always been a big fan of ITV. Back in 2002, when it had become more than apparent that BSkyB, of which he was then the chief executive, was about to grind its ITV Digital rival into the dust, he showed the generosity of spirit for which he is renowned when he noted that ITV's senior management "couldn't run a bath".

He was wrong, clearly. But seven years is a long time in any business sector - and the scaldingly hot bath that was drawn for him back then at ITV Towers will clearly have gone cold. If, as is expected, Ball becomes ITV's new chief executive, he will encounter few survivors from the good old days.

This is, though, a potentially odd coupling. In some quarters, it is being characterised as something of a "comeback" for Ball. Many in the media market clearly believe he dropped off the edge of the planet when he left BSkyB, having decided not to renew a contract that was scheduled to end in May 2004.

His departure was an elegant solution for all concerned - Ball was handsomely rewarded (garnering more than £13 million in his last year, including a generous inducement not to work for competing media owners for a couple of years) and his exit smoothed the way for James Murdoch to succeed him.

Meanwhile, Ball moved on to become the chairman of Kabel Deutschland, a company very much like Virgin Media. It's arguably a bigger company than ITV (tidily profitable thanks to Ball's efforts to halve the workforce) and he is extremely well remunerated.

So why should Ball want ITV? Equally, why should ITV want Ball? The assumption over the past few months has been that ITV needs a new chief executive with a very strong yet innovative programming background. Or someone with a compelling vision for television's future prospects on the internet. Or both. Ball, arguably, ticks neither box. He's hot on engineering infrastructure and pay-TV, but he has little relevant experience in free-to-air commercial TV.

Should advertisers be cheered if, as expected, he persuades ITV investors to meet his enormous salary demands? Why not, Chris Locke, the UK trading director of Starcom MediaVest, ponders. The new chief executive of ITV will be pushing at an open door, he reasons - so anyone blessed with basic competence is likely to succeed. He adds: "There's more underlying confidence sneaking back into the market and a loosening of Contract Rights Renewal (the airtime market remedy restrictions) could put ITV in a much stronger position in 2010. So Tony Ball - or whoever - will suddenly look like they're leading ITV out of the darkness."

Chris Hayward, the head of investment at ZenithOptimedia, maintains that "steady as you go" will be the first requirement of the new man. He explains: "When the broadcast market picks up again, things will be different because there will be options to choose from. But in the current state of the economy, I'm not sure that anyone (from whatever background) can do anything to improve ITV's revenue performance."

And Nick Theakstone, the chief executive of Group M, agrees with a broad consensus that the new chief executive will probably join at just the right time. But, he says, Ball is not to be underestimated: "Tony Ball has a huge amount of respect and historical success in the television business. He was certainly at the forefront of the television revolution when he was at Sky."

Absolutely, Marc Mendoza, the chief executive of MPG, agrees, though he concedes this could be a feisty relationship. He says: "His legendary ruthlessness in business decision-making will need to be utilised almost immediately and he will need to make some painful steps to turn around the fortunes of ITV. No doubt he will appreciate how different it is to run a subscription-based broadcaster compared to a free-to-air business model like ITV. The appointment of Tony Ball is likely to be beneficial to the long-term health of ITV - but this will not be an incident-free journey."

MAYBE - Chris Locke, UK trading director, Starcom MediaVest

"Hopefully he will realise there's a limit to how much change he can orchestrate. ITV is about putting out great programming. He'll want to be vociferous; that's fine, as long as he doesn't overdo it."

YES - Chris Hayward, head of investment, ZenithOptimedia

"The job is to restore a sense of confidence - and I think Tony Ball would be able to do that as well as anyone. He's not totally lacking in experience on the digital side of things either. As far as I'm concerned, he fits the bill."

YES - Nick Theakstone, chief executive, Group M

"He will need a good second in command, of course, but I think he could be just the sort of hard-nosed character that ITV will need. First and foremost, ITV needs someone who understands broadcast."

YES - Marc Mendoza, chief executive, MPG

"Tony Ball is a shrewd businessman not afraid to make tough decisions. It is difficult to see him being applauded into Gray's Inn Road by the ITV staff in the way that Michael Grade was, but they could have reason to be grateful for his arrival in a couple of years' time."

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