When you ring around TV buying directors and ask them about Stewart
Butterfield they all say similar things. ’He’s very bright,’ they say,
’but he’s a bit of a backroom boy.’
Some even suggest that Andy Barnes, Channel 4’s sales director, had more
to do with the growth in Channel 4 revenue than Butterfield, his boss
and the sales and marketing director.
Granted, Barnes is a skilful and wily negotiator and a prodigious sales
talent, but to attribute the station’s success purely to him is not
merely unfair, it’s just plain wrong. But then, everyone’s always been
wrong about Stewart Butterfield.
He’s just defected to ITV from Channel 4 to take over as managing
director of Granada UK Broadcasting (Campaign, last week). He’s been at
Channel 4 since 1991 and, when he was appointed, people were dubious
about his suitability. Both the City analysts and the time-buying
community agreed Butterfield would struggle to reach 14 per cent of
ITV’s revenue. One analyst said confidently that Channel 4 would
struggle to reach 8 per cent. Of course the station is now taking 21.9
per cent of total terrestrial TV ad revenue and 20 per cent of TV
revenue and he’s been so successful that Channel 4 has had to pay out
some pounds 200 million to ITV as a result of the funding formula to
date. Michael Grade’s struggle to reverse the formula was as important
to him as his struggle against privatisation and it’s all Butterfield’s
fault for being a success.
It may be hard to remember but, before he arrived, Channel 4 didn’t
advertise its programmes to the public at all. Indeed, no television
station in the UK advertised its programmes as a matter of course. In
Butterfield’s first year, he secured a modest marketing budget of pounds
4 million and began the process of building Channel 4 as a brand to the
viewer and the trade.
This is now so commonplace with all TV stations that it seems difficult
to believe the idea is only seven years old in this country.
To those who accuse Butterfield of being ’a bit cerebral but not
hard-nosed enough’, it is worth pointing out that the two members of
Channel 4’s staff who worked the hardest on the Big Breakfast were
Butterfield and Andrea Wonfor, the then controller of arts and
entertainment at Channel 4 and now joint managing director at Granada’s
The significance of such co-operation should not be underestimated.
It shows how programmers and commercial departments can work together to
produce programmes which revolutionise television creativity and pull in
huge sums of cash.
’We sat down together and decided that this daypart should pay its own
way,’ he says. ’We knew there was a gap in the market for a programme
that appealed to young people and schoolchildren and was bright and
At the time, we had the Channel 4 Daily, a rather worthy daily news
format and everyone pooh-poohed our idea. It was Planet 24 who had the
genius to create the programme as it was, with Chris Evans and Gaby
Roslin. They were able to capture the word of mouth in the playground
and in the colleges, but it was Andrea and I who created the brief in
the first place.’
Having helped mould the Big Breakfast and create the kind of marketing
that now seems commonplace, Butterfield went on to sort out a funding
structure that would allow the growth of advertiser-supplied programming
in the UK while ensuring Channel 4’s cautious programming department
maintained its integrity, hence the existence of Pepsi’s Passengers
which managed to avoid the pitfalls of Heineken’s Hotel Babylon and
still push advertising-supplied programming forward in the UK.
Hard-nosed enough for you? I think so.
It’s intriguing that Butterfield will join ITV just a few weeks after
Richard Eyre’s appointment to the Network Centre’s chief executive
position was announced. That’s two 80s media directors who are charged
with turning around the fortunes of a network which has most ’80s’
adlanders seething with righteous fury. Is this a coincidence?
’Being media director does give you the ability to understand how to
handle creativity while retaining a sharp commercial edge,’ Butterfield
comments. ’It must give us an edge because you don’t normally get people
running television companies who are in their 40s.’
Does the death of the full-service agency mean that a career path like
Butterfield’s is no longer open to budding media buyers?
’I suppose in a way it does,’ he says. ’The skills of someone running
Zenith or TMD are very different to the old-style media director,
although I’m sure someone like Christine Walker would be able to do
anything she put her mind to. It takes different kinds of people to do
different jobs and dealing with creatives is not a big requirement for
the large buying houses.’
Butterfield himself, while not quite worshipping at the altar of
creativity, clearly holds it in high regard. He is a keen music buff,
although his last rock concert was David Bowie at Milton Keynes in the
early 90s because ’I overheard someone saying ’it’s not Woodstock
anymore’ as I walked past’, and he relishes all aspects of highbrow and
lowbrow popular culture. That’s fortunate, given his vision on ITV.
’It’s about being the popular culture network for the 90s,’ he comments.
’Innovation is not necessarily a theme that ITV should pursue
desperately. We are a mainstream channel and should be appealing to a
mainstream audience. Having said that, it’s important that ITV realises
this is 1997 and not 1977. Britain is more diverse and those old ideas
are worth revisiting.’
Butterfield knows that soaps and popular drama are strong on the network
but is wary of complacency. He points out that entertainment in
particular is looking tired, both on the BBC and ITV.
He believes ITV needs to look at the big shows, such as Gladiators and
Blind Date, and see if there are new programmes that can do as well for
the channel today as they did when they were launched. ’I don’t mean we
should return to variety and Saturday Night at the Palladium,’ he
’I mean, we should produce the best programmes that appeal to the mood
of the times.’ At this point, he is on the point of saying ’Zeitgeist’
but he manages to stop himself in time. ’That’s where the challenges
Unfortunately, Butterfield is uttering the mantra of every new ITV
appointee that has joined the network since 1990. It has been said by
programme-makers, sales directors, accountants and City whizzkids since
the 1990 Broadcasting Bill and BSkyB tore the network’s pretty little
monopoly into shreds. ’It’s a great challenge,’ the new recruit says
cheerfully. ’We face a rocky patch but I think we can turn it around.’
So what makes Butterfield think he can effect this change?
’It’s different because ITV has reached a situation where it has to do
something,’ he says. ’This may be more significant for Richard (Eyre)
than it is for me, But Granada Broadcasting still makes 90 per cent of
its revenue from ITV. ITV needs to get something done because if it
doesn’t the consequences will be disastrous. If it gets it right, ITV
will be a big brand and a big player for decades to come.’
John Perriss, the chairman of Zenith Worldwide, agrees with
’The pressure is growing and the numbers are crowding in on ITV. The
next few years will see it losing the Channel 4 payments, declining in
share as the other guys grow and making heavy licence fee payments after
all the cost-stripping has been done and as the price of programmes
Perriss pauses and contemplates the gloomy picture he has painted. ’If
it’s any consolation,’ he adds cheerfully, ’I think Stewart will be good
at his job.’