Media Forum: Will Grade be good for commercial TV?

Michael Grade's appointment as chairman is good for the BBC but is it bad news for advertisers? The new BBC chairman-designate, Michael Grade, ticks more than a few boxes where the corporation is concerned. For a start, he's high profile and charismatic - and from the point of view of internal morale, if nothing else, the BBC needs strong characters at this point in time. He's a familiar face who knows how the corporation works (or worked), having been the controller of BBC1 and then the director of TV in the mid-80s.

He joined the BBC when it was at a low point and he was then instrumental in reviving its fortunes. He would undoubtedly have become director-general had he not fallen out so bitterly with John Birt, when Birt was the deputy director-general.

Instead, he moved on to spend almost a decade as the chief executive of Channel 4 and it was his blend of the commercial and the quirky (in programming terms) that kept the channel within its remit, while putting it on a sound financial footing for the first time. He's seen the business of television from many angles, having worked on the talent agency side of things in the UK as well as having worked as a TV producer in Los Angeles.

He has a strong mind, a clear vision and he deals brilliantly with bullies.

Perhaps the best instance of this was the way he made light of the vile "Pornographer in Chief" campaign conducted by the Daily Mail, which he survived with his dignity intact.

All of which is surely bad news for the commercial sector. There has been much talk in advertising circles about putting the BBC back in its public service box and there is every expectation that the corporation will have to watch its step in the run-up to Charter renewal in 2006.

But we can forget all of that now, can't we?

Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising at ISBA, says we'll have to wait and see.

He states: "Our understanding is that his first job is to recruit a new director-general, and he is eminently qualified to do that. His second job is to face Charter review, and here it's just too early to say whether he will try and steer the BBC away from the overly commercial path it has taken with increasing vigour in recent years. We can only hope that this is the case, perhaps reassured by the fact that such continued behaviour is surely likely to bring a heavier Government hand down on the corporation."

Tom George, the out-going deputy managing director of ZenithOptimedia, points out that Grade is reputed to be an excellent political operator.

He adds: "In recent times, the BBC has been obsessed with coverage and ratings rather than reach - which should be the true measure for a public service broadcaster. It shouldn't be about pulling in big audiences all the time. But Grade comes from a populist background. He started way back at LWT too, didn't he? And he has a fantastic track record, including a spell in American TV. The BBC can quite comfortably continue in the same (commercial) mould if it wishes."

Many in the advertising business agree. Nick Theakstone, the managing director of Group M, says that, from a commercial sector point of view, the appointment is the worst possible news. He comments: "From a BBC point of view, it's an inspired choice, as has almost universally been recognised.

From a commercial point of view, it's absolutely terrible news. As the BBC's problems were piling up, I think many people thought that the BBC was going to put on its pipe and slippers and was going to go into feet-up mode until the whole Charter thing was settled. Grade, though, will make a real difference. He will change that."

But Jim Hytner, the marketing director of ITV, fundamentally disagrees. He reckons the appointment is great news, not only for the BBC but for ITV too. And this isn't kidology, he insists, he means it.

He explains: "It's a bit like when there's a big battle between Coke and Pepsi - the question isn't so much about who takes what in terms of share but about the fact that the market becomes an interesting one for consumers."

On the other hand, he adds, don't confuse Grade the commercial animal with Grade the BBC chairman whose first priority will be to get the Charter renewed.

The easiest way for him to fail in that objective is to allow the BBC to keep making the likes of Fame Academy.

But, Hytner concludes, the bottom line is that Grade's return to the corporation is good news for British broadcasting. He states: "The more figures there are with charisma in the business, then the better it is for all of us."

- "Given that we hold the position that the BBC's governance should be made more effective, and that this will require much greater broadcast experience than that previously exhibited by its governors, our view is that Michael Grade is the best candidate." - Bob Wootton director of media and advertising, ISBA

- "From an advertising point of view, it will not now be a surprise to see the BBC do more of the blatant things that it has been doing, in terms of copying shows developed by ITV (eg. Fame Academy) and scheduling aggressively against the network's premium drama." - Tom George deputy managing director, ZenithOptimedia

- "He will reinvigorate thinking and make everyone at the BBC snap out of the dour mood they're in. More importantly, he will be able to influence the choice of the next director-general and you would expect him to have a very strong relationship with that individual." - Nick Theakstone managing director, Group M

- "When the BBC is strong, that's when we perform at our best too. We could do without the BBC infringing where its remit is concerned and we will continue to draw attention to the fact that the BBC has been following a commercial agenda." - Jim Hytner marketing director, ITV.

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