MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON ITV - An ambitious Elstein sizes up his opportunity to change ITV

Will David Elstein engineer his way to taking charge of a merged ITV?

During his time as the director of programmes at Thames Television, David Elstein was responsible for showing the Death on the Rock documentary following the 1988 shooting of three IRA terrorists by the SAS in Gibraltar.

The airing of the controversial programme is widely believed to have contributed to the Government's decision to strip Thames of the London weekday franchise and award it to Michael Green's more biddable Carlton.

As if to prove that revenge is a dish best served cold, a decade later, reports suggest that Elstein is planning to take out Green, the Carlton chief executive, and Charles Allen, his counterpart at Granada, with plans for a restructured post-merger ITV. Green and Allen had proposed that they become the chief executive and chairman respectively of a merged ITV, but shareholders may have other options.

Among Elstein's suggestions are outsourcing more programme commissions, the disposal of the two companies' disparate foreign TV interests and a move to a national rather than a regional sales model with two separate divested sales houses.

So is Elstein throwing his own hat into the ring? No-one, other than Elstein himself, really seems to know and he refuses to talk until he returns from a brief holiday.

Some say that he is planning a wholesale regime change and will lead a cabal of usurpers; others that he is merely acting in his capacity as a broadcast adviser making recommendations to investors on how savings could be achieved.

Insiders say Elstein, a TV veteran of some 40 years standing and a former chief executive of five, was once interested in winning the support of the City to make a bid for ITV and that he approached institutions earlier this year. However, his ambitions were thwarted following an unexpected rise in Carlton's share price. Nonetheless, his plans for regime change seem very much alive.

Elstein's criticism of the current Carlton and Granada management has been music to the ears of the City. "The general consensus is that the management is the poorest in the City - I can't think of another management team that has made so many mistakes over the past decade," one analyst says.

Few expect Allen and Green to survive. If Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, gives Carlton and Granada the green light to merge, the consensus is that either Allen or Green will stay on, at least in the short term, to see the merger through. Given that Green built his company from nothing, he has more of a passion for ITV, but with Granada holding the whip hand it seems more likely that Allen will keep his job.

Observers agree with Elstein that, following a merger, the ITV management suite is in need of a thorough clean-up, although one analyst says he is impressed with the ITV marketing director, Jim Hytner, and the director of programmes, Nigel Pickard. So who would be the best man to lead a merged company?

If Elstein does decide to go for the job, it will go down well with the City. A name linked to his bid is Malcolm Wall, the chief operating officer at United Business Media and a former sales director at Granada TV. City observers nod approvingly as they talk about how he has stripped out cost from UBM.

Among the rest of Elstein's cabal are the former BSkyB finance director, Richard Brooke, and the former five finance director, Damien Harte. Brooke did a good job at Sky but Harte's reported inclusion came as a surprise following his involvement in the collapsed e-commerce company Grey Archer.

Other names in the frame for the top job are the Capital Radio chief executive, David Mansfield, and Clear Channel International's chief executive, Roger Parry. But they are thought of as outsiders.

The advertising community is circumspect in voicing its opinion, mindful that it will have to negotiate with any new management team. It is less concerned with creating shareholder value and more with the investment in the channel's programming output.

Jerry Hill, the chief executive of Initiative Media, and a former chief executive of the ITV sales house TSMS, takes more of a wait-and-see approach.

"Assuming the merger does go ahead, it's by no means a foregone conclusion that they (Allen and Green) will go. It's down to the shareholders to judge the management's ability to elicit value," he says.

While Hill acknowledges that fresh blood could reinvigorate the business, he considers speculation to be premature. "Potentially there's too much focus on cost-reducing when this is actually about creating a vibrant business that will attract viewers," Hill says.

Jim Marshall, the chairman of Starcom MediaVest Group and the chairman of the IPA Media Futures Group, is also reluctant to comment on the personalities involved but adds to the voices dissatisfied with the current regime.

"Carlton and Granada haven't been well run. The way ITV Digital was handled was abominable and they've never been called to account. From an agency perspective there have been a number of situations where we've been significantly under-impressed," he says.

While Elstein and his cohorts have been causing excitement in the City, the message from the agencies seems to be that they don't care who runs ITV, as long as they do it competently.

One man who seems suitable to take ITV forward is Mick Desmond, the joint managing director of ITV. While the sacrificing of Allen and Green may appease the City, Desmond with his experience of running ITV would be a compromise choice and a popular one with the ad community.

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