Media Headliner: What next for ITV following Grade's abdication?

After stepping down as the broadcaster's executive chairman, what legacy has Michael Grade left behind, Alasdair Reid asks.

It was a shame, really, that it had to end on such a sour note. Michael Grade has, for a generation, been one of the media industry's most inspired and charismatic leaders - and even his severest critics (such as Doctor Who fans when he had the temerity to axe the show in the 80s) tend to concede that, by and large, he's been on the side of the angels.

And, yes, there's always been a coterie of the medium's self-appointed (and, according to industry mythology, Oxbridge-educated) intelligentsia who've tended to sneer at Grade for being a "vulgar vaudevillian" - a more than passing reference to the showbiz family from which he springs.

Mild stuff, really. One thing's for sure - there's been nothing in the past to prepare us for the article published in The Times on 7 March by his former colleague (and rival) Greg Dyke.

Grade's lawyers have prepared defamation writs against both The Times and Dyke. If this matter does get to court, it will provide an ugly, if colourful, end-piece (he was 66 the day after the Dyke article appeared) to a distinguished career.

But perhaps now that Grade has announced he's stepping down from his role as the executive chairman of ITV by the end of this year, he'll find time for calmer reflection. He's bigger than this and has, in the past, taken criticism on the chin.

For those who missed it, Dyke's piece argued (and this, naturally, is the bowdlerised version) that Grade left the BBC in the lurch when, in late 2006, he upped and left his job as the chairman of the BBC Governors to join ITV- and that he was motivated by greed. And then, Dyke's piece continued, it soon became apparent that Grade didn't have a credible big-picture strategy for the future of ITV - and tactical errors compounded this failing.

Interestingly, for our current purposes, the Dyke jibe that almost certainly tipped Grade over the edge was the implication that he behaved dishonourably towards the BBC. Whereas for ITV, the only thing that really matters now is an understanding of whether Grade did get it wrong; or basically got it right. As right as anyone could in the outstanding horrible circumstances.

Because that, in turn, is at the root of the whole question of where ITV goes from here - and not least who Grade's successor is to be. The centrepiece of the Grade blueprint, as unveiled in September 2007, was a "content-led revival" where an increasing percentage of the broadcaster's output would be made in-house - with programming budgets rising incrementally.

As a result, there would, Grade reckoned, be a creative renaissance, with bolder and more innovative programme-makers being given their head. In turn, audiences and advertising revenues would follow.

According to Andy Jones, the chief executive of UM London, it wasn't a complete disaster. He adds: "I don't want to seem to be damning with faint praise, but my feeling was that he's done not a bad job on the programming side. There's been some innovation in the types of programme being commissioned and in the way that the schedule is constructed.

"The digital strategy - at least where the television channels (as opposed to group-owned, non-ITV-branded websites) are concerned - has been effective. It has just about stayed in the game where sport is concerned - though Grade overpaid for the FA Cup."

Grade's supporters point out that he has also been a hugely effective operator when it comes to lobbying on ITV's behalf behind the scenes - it's highly likely that his efforts to see contract rights renewal abolished or amended will soon bear fruit.

However, the criticism levelled at Grade in the City - and this was at the heart of Dyke's attack too - is the notion of a creative renaissance has become irrelevant in the digital age. Worse, that Grade basically didn't understand digital.

Tellingly, these critics decline to put forward alternative strategies. Or, indeed, own up to the fact that only a fool or a charlatan would claim to understand digital - and its ultimate implications for the media industries - in the current climate.

Newspapers have, of course, opened a book on potential runners and riders in the succession race. And it's a large field, embracing just about every single senior television executive still considered to be on this side of senility. For the record, they include: Malcolm Wall, Tony Ball, Michael Jackson, Stephen Carter, Dawn Airey; and a clutch of internal candidates, including Rupert Howell, John Cresswell, Peter Fincham and Carolyn Fairbairn.

City sources discount just about all of these names. They say that if ITV is to tough it out as the UK's flagship commercial channel while keeping its programme production base - the heritage option - then Jackson has to be hired. He knows about talent, production and the dynamics of the global television market. And he could be relied upon to please the younger audiences that advertisers demand.

Alternatively, if ITV is to be dismembered, then a real City bruiser is required - in which case, television experience is neither here nor there. And if it's to be run as a vanity project by a foreign billionaire (and Silvio Berlusconi has been speculatively linked with a bid for months now), then you can pluck your own obscure or improbable candidates from the air. How about Ant and Dec?

And let's not forget that a couple of years ago, Dyke himself was linked with a venture capital bid for ITV. But perhaps the most surreal (and therefore, perhaps, the most probable outcome) is a Richard Branson-backed rescue plan that would see the Virgin Media director Charles Allen thrust into the hot seat once more.

Allen was Grade's predecessor at ITV, so there'd be a compelling symmetry there. Dyke and Grade would give that outcome their unreserved backing. Wouldn't they?

Would they hell. On that, if nothing else, they might find themselves in perfect agreement for perhaps the first time in their long and colourful television lives.