MEDIA: Headliner - Corley steers GMTV into profit and a bigger audience share

After ten years, the station has more than enough to celebrate, Jeremy Lee says.

Eamonn and Lorraine are blowing up the balloons at GMTV in preparation for the station's forthcoming tenth birthday party. The invitations have been sent out and Gordon Brown is rumoured to be among those coming.

The tenth anniversary of TV-AM's replacement was at the beginning of January, just like that of Thames TV's usurper Carlton.

However, there seems to be much to celebrate at GMTV - it has reached a maturity that seemed impossible when it was conceived, it has grown its share of the breakfast audience and it is finally on a stable financial footing.

Paul Corley, GMTV's managing director and the chief party organiser, says: "Of course it's a celebration of the past decade but it's also an opportunity to say we will be here in ten years' time."

GMTV had a record 2002, with its share of the breakfast audience up 2 per cent on the previous year - it was the only part of the channel three day to experience any sort of growth. It also finally paid off its last loan stocks to shareholders - some £2 million dating back to 1993 and was profitable for the third consecutive year.

Things weren't so rosy when GMTV was born. It massively overbid in order to wrestle the franchise off TV-AM, which led to the infamous letter of apology from Mrs Thatcher to TV-AM's Bruce Gyngell. The price of the franchise (around £40 million a year) put GMTV in the red for the first six years of its life. The fee was later reduced by ten-fold, in return for an increase in the share of ad revenue it provides the Treasury.

GMTV's share of ad revenue has been consistent over the past few years despite the fluctuations in the TV market. All the same, Corley, a man described as a "good man" and a "true broadcaster" by contemporaries, exhibits some frustration as he pores over Barb share and profile figures.

It's easy to understand why. Among smart-arsed London-centric media buyers, GMTV is hardly a station of choice and it is normally dismissed as having an audience of old and downmarket, provincial women. Not so, Corley says as he points out figures that show GMTV has a 33 per cent share of ABC1s and a 35 per cent share of 16 to 34s. Its traditionally staple audience of housewives and children have not fared so well under the new Barb panel but Corley glosses over this.

Corley is only too aware of commercial pressures having spent a diverse 20-year career in commercial TV. The man now in charge of the cosy sofa-side chats was once the producer of Tyne Tees' groundbreaking The Tube.

Management roles followed for Corley, including the director of programmes at Border TV before the station was little more than a Granada-owned Carlisle transmitter. His role as the controller of factual programmes within the Carlton TV launch team led to the post of the controller of factual and daytime at the ITV Network Centre. Some of his commissions, Airline and the ... from Hell series, still grace ITV's evening schedules.

Corley's most commercial role was when he was drafted back to Border TV and Border Radio Holdings as the chief executive ahead of its sale to Capital Radio and Granada. Corley fattened up the group from a market capitalisation of £35 million in 1998 to £150 million two years later.

As well as an experienced broadcaster, Corley is also a shrewd businessman with the experience of maximising shareholder value. So what is the future for GMTV, a venture owned by a consortium of Carlton, Granada, Scottish Media Group and Disney? Corley is confident that GMTV won't be subsumed into ITV in the short term. "Carlton and Granada have other more pressing issues to resolve, including programming and regulatory questions. The GMTV machine isn't broken so why bother fixing it?" he says.

Among the regulatory hurdles to be overcome is the rather large one concerning ITV's sales arrangements - although Carlton and Granada have pressed for one sales house in their submission to the Office of Fair Trading it seems distinctly possible that this will be thrown out. And, according to speculation, GMTV is waiting on the sidelines to leap in and sell part of the ITV portfolio as a way of appeasing the regulators.

Corley admits that there have been discussions to this effect but will not speculate on what the future holds. It seems a logical move - GMTV is applauded for the way it squeezes value out of the breakfast daypart while ITV has been criticised for allowing its daytime programming to slide, most obviously since allowing Home & Away to defect to Five. If GMTV's sales role is extended many may have to reassess their perceptions.

THE CORLEY FILE

1992: Carlton Television, controller of factual and regional programmes

1994: Carlton Broadcasting, managing director

1996: ITV Network Centre, controller of factual programmes and daytime

1998: Border Television, chief executive

2000: Channel Television and Brainspark, director

2001: GMTV, managing director