RTL lets Airey out early to depart Five on Friday

LONDON - Dawn Airey, the chief executive of the UK's fifth terrestrial TV station Five, is to leave on Friday for her new job at BSkyB despite having a year's notice period.

Airey shocked the UK broadcasting industry when it emerged at the weekend that she was to quit Five and snub ITV to take up the position of managing director of Sky Networks, which gives her responsibility for all non-sports content.

Her hiring was a major coup for BSkyB chief executive Tony Ball and left ITV, which had been wooing her for months, empty handed and still hunting for a new chief executive.

Five's major shareholder RTL has effectively torn up Airey's contract and allowed to forgo her one-year notice period. There were obvious concerns about a possible conflict of interest as Five and Sky find themselves going head to head to capture viewers.

By allowing Airey out of her contract early and not holding her back, also demonstrates the high esteem Airey is held in by RTL. She has been widely credited with turning around Channel 5, leading to a boost in audience share, which rose to 6.5% from 5.7% last year.

The early exit also renews speculation about future relations between Five/RTL and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. Is there a new bid in the offing? Or is closer cooperation between the groups a more likely possibility?

Sky is positioning itself to become the UK's sixth channel while Five is gaining ground all the time. Its rise has partly been attributed to its increased attention to quality programmes such as 'CSI: Crime Scene Investigation' and coming soon the Emmy-winning police drama 'The Shield', a clear nod to Channel 4, which has already successfully travelled this ratings-boosting road.

Five is 65% controlled by the Bertlesmann-owned RTL Group, with the remaining 35% held by Lord Clive Hollick's United Business Media.

Airey leaves Five after six-and-a-half years, having joined in 1996 as director of programmes. She had previously been head of arts and entertainment at Channel 4.

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