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Paul Mason's Idle Scrawl

Grade - big socks to fill...

  • Paul Mason
  • 28 Nov 06, 08:15 AM

Michael GradeCongratulations to Michael Grade who has leapt, red socks barely singed, from what we describe in business as "burning platform" to one in cinders. Tessa Jowell now faces the task of trawling through that class of people who own big, white Georgian houses with 20-foot high ceilings to find a replacement. In the meantime here's what I thnk it means...

For ITV: An inspirational leader comes in as - note the job title - executive chair: that is he will be both overseer and boss. The company faces this problem: its business model was based on its ability to deliver mass advertising for a mass audience: Silvikrin, Smash, Cadbury's Dairy Milk etc - the reason these names resonate deep in your psyche is because they have been wedged between episodes of Corrie over the generations. However a) advertisers are less interested in reaching the Corrie-watching masses and b) the under-35s are increasingly not watching Corrie or anything else: they are on the internet, or texting, or getting smashed on recreational drugs at a time when by rights they should be sitting down with a mass-advertised frozen Pizza and watching Prime Suspect.

Thus advertiser-funded television is a model in crisis. Grade's predecessor, Charles Allen, grappled with this by relentlessly balancing the books at the expense of innovative programming. Hence even fewer people watched ITV1 and it was in danger of becoming a demographic niche for people who can't afford to buy much at all, advertising notwithstanding. Grade has been itching to get his hands on some programming decisions, as his email to us minions this morning reveals:

"I was faced with the choice of getting back into programming or ‘governing’ the BBC from a distance. Those of you who know me will understand just what an effort of will it has taken for me, as Chairman of the Governors, not to look at the overnight ratings every day, not to engage in idle programming chit chat with the brilliant creatives who are currently taking BBC television, radio and on line to new heights of quality – and so on."

For the BBC: Aaargh! He has clearly not yet secured anything like the licence fee settlement that will allow Mark Thompson to fund his plans for technology innovation (and goodby Salford Quays, I think we can surmise). Maybe there is no final figure settled on, but Grade's departure must surely signal there is no chance of the Beeb getting its above-inflation rise.

Tessa JowellTessa Jowell now has to appoint, not just a replacement Chairman but the first arms-length self-regulator of the BBC. Even at age 63 Grade did not fancy this sinecure, so attracting the right talent for this job is going to be hard: it's basically a thankless job of keeping the BBC to its remit while having no operational control over it. Speaking personally, as someone whose work is now the subject of a Beeb-wide "impartiality review" of business coverage, I think the tools at the disposal of the new BBC Trust feel, well, clunky. The one exciting thing the head of the BBC Trust can do is negotiate a realistic licence fee and Charter Renewal - the next time the Charter is renewed most of you will be viewing TV over the internet and the licence fee must surely be totally rethought.

So it is tactically inopportune for the Beeb for Grade to go, but the choice of his successor will be a crucial signal. At ITV Grade now has to manage decline -and will probably do it brilliantly; the next regulator of the BBC has a far bigger task: not so much managing a secular decline but the last six years of public service broadcasting and an entire change in technology and relationship with the audience. It is not the chairman's job to design this - indeed the CEO of the Beeb, Mark Thompson has a credible if slightly tech-obsessed view of where he's going: the task of the chairman is to calibrate the transition against the decades old principles the BBC has to follow. This can't be done by working from a document but by calibrating the mood and feeling of the national and global audience the BBC is supposed to serve.

And here is the biggest challenge of all: BBC Chairmen are traditionally drawn from the Georgian town-house owning classes because that class has been the respository of supposedly shared values of the nation: liberal, creative, measured, culturally diverse. But the big demographic challenge to broadcasting is the fragmentation of the audience - and the generation gap which means the under-25s are often classed as "low approvers" of services like the BBC (and conversely high-approvers of computer games, texting, Sky News, MTV).

Maybe Tessa Jowell should look beyond that inner core of people who know what Chateau Latour-Lafitte tastes like for the next Chairman of the BBC: clubbability and contacts among the high-rollers of the liberal establishment may not be the only qualities needed on the CV. And to such people (Grade was one) it will feel like a thankless task.

The ability to relate the age-old Reithian principles to the age of digital communications - indeed to reinvent them - will be crucial to the job of Grade's replacement: paradoxically the job of Director General is more easily defined; it's to make the BBC a pace-setter in culturally diverse programming, fight for the under-25 audience and set the gold-standard for new broadcasting technology. The job of Grade's successor is to make sure the Beeb does this without destroying the principles that justify its existence.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 03:40 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

Come along now Paul, will anyone at the BBC really be crying in their beer at not having to move to Manchester ??

I should point out that as a Welsh person I have nothing against either London or Manchester, but the idea that a move away from metropolitan slants would be fixed by having an office there was a bit silly. Surely hiring more people from 'oop north would serve much the same purpose ?

But the 'killer question' is how to ensure that this licence fee settlement isn't the last, rather than quibbling about the odd percent here and there. Murdoch propaganda about the 'television tax' isn't helped, if we're honest, by having Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton on the payroll. And the right-wing blogging brigade are pushing the facile view that the BBC is 'biased' and thus not deserving of the fee.
[Even if what they would like is the Beeb to a sort of 'Daily Mailograph' of the airwaves].

Perversely, the Beeb could do worse than bring back Greg Dyke - populist enough to be able to make the case for the licence fee, but he knew to 'leave well alone' with the likes of Radio 4, documentaries and news, even if it cost him his job last time..

  • 2.
  • At 03:43 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

Paul - come along now - let's be having a few guesses as to who might be the next one sitting in the big red chair.

I suspect Polly Toynbee will not be one of the short-odds candidates, not yet.

And would Michael Jackson come back from the states for a job like this ? Big drop in salary, but having worked for C4 he might consider another stint in 'public service' broadcasting on the home turf.

And with Teflon Tony on the way out, it would be a brave person to rule out the return of Greg Dyke on a white charger.

  • 3.
  • At 04:50 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • John Middleton wrote:

What about a nice swap - Stephen Carter for BBC Chairman as Grade has got the ITV job everyone thought he'd get...

I suspect that Greg Dyke will be employed by Grade at ITV, but if he does not then the chairman of the BBC Trust would seem a sensible move!

  • 5.
  • At 06:13 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • nick wrote:

surely not enough emphasis is given to those who really make the BBc what it is. I was almost sickened to hear michael grade leaving, what seems to me a case of either not getting his own way or sheer greed proped up by sheer ego.
More emphasis should be placed I think, on the real BBC, the news presenters, those who make programmes, the journalists. these are the real powerhouses of the corporation, and maybe the director general as well.
I wonder if all the fuss about Michael Grade leaving shows we have our values slighty askew.

  • 6.
  • At 06:46 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

I take nick's point about 'greed and ego' - but the fact is someone like that was required at the BBC to stand up to the likes of Gordon Brown, who isn't a big fan of the licence fee, by all accounts.

Yes, you can say he is 'looking after number one' - but ultimately the BBC does need someone with ambition at the head of the corporation.

  • 7.
  • At 08:01 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • David Rose wrote:

Michael Grade will negotiate the long-overdue take-over, be bought out of his contract for a few million and, unfotunately, won't retire.

The BBC will not get it's huge rise and will be cut down to size.

The main platform for delivery of tv will be the computer - albeit connected to your wide-screen telly via bluetooth... and the power will return to the producers not the ususal commissioning suspects comprising 20- and 30-somethings who know nothing, don't watch tv (in fact they sneer at people who watch the pap they put out) and, frankly, don't know what they are doing...

How very depressing...

It's natural that BBC and other television people should be agog over Michael Grade's move, but to most of the rest of us it's really a bit of a yawn, these elderly gentlemen making grandiose statements to bunches of microphones and then shuffling around the chess board in different permutations: only the names remain the same. None of it seems especially relevant to those of us who get more entertainment (not in the form of television programmes, though) from our computers than from those weary old programmes on the box, mostly as unchanging in their tired formats over the years as the channel bosses or the New York Times. Coronation Street! Panorama! Does anyone really watch them still? OK, we all listen to the Today Programme and the World at One and PM, and watch Channel 4 News and Newsnight, with snatches of Sky News in between, but that's because we're hooked on politics and news, not on BBC Radio or television any more.

Of course we cherish the dear old BBC (it's a National Institution, right?) -- and we get really annoyed when the government tries to mess it about: long live Andrew Gilligan and Greg Dyke! But we also think it's recklessly extravagant -- why do all the big name presenters have to troop out to the US every time there's an election there? how many resident correspondents does the BBC keep in the US at any one time and why can't they be left to cover events Stateside without an army of household names rushing out to steal their thunder every third week? how many technicians and general hangers-on are really needed to make a run-of-the-mill programme? ever watch those titles rolling on for twenty minutes at the end of each pot-boiler? So it won't break our hearts if the licence fee is kept to just under the rate of inflation, and if that prevents the BBC from going ahead with this barmy plan for moving to Manchester, tant mieux. Oh, and does anyone seriously think that Greg Dyke is going to be the government's choice for the new Top Trustee of the BBC after the things he has said about Blair and co. when he was given the old heave-ho last time? If he does get it, it will be the ultimate proof that Blair's authority really has drained away out of the lame duck and that Gordon's already driving the plane, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphors. Come to think of it, appointing Greg would be a sweet revenge. So maybe it's not so far-fetched after all. (Excuse me yawning like this: it must be bed-time, and I doubt if I'll stay awake through Newsnight tonight any more than I have done for weeks....)

Sail on, O BBC, our mate: sail on, broadcaster strong and great: but don't imagine that humanity with all its fears, with all the hopes of future years, is hanging breathless on thy fate, because it ain't.

Brian

  • 9.
  • At 10:17 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • Tony wrote:

I think that Philip is spot on the target. Murdoch with his political contacts will drip, drip away at public broadcasting and the more populist the Beeb goes, the greater weight to his arguement that the licence fee is a tax. What really is the difference between Strictly Come Dancing and the X factor?

  • 10.
  • At 11:39 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • John Semple wrote:

I think Grade is doing it for one reason and one reason only. MONEY it's the only thing that people with money want more of.

  • 11.
  • At 01:34 AM on 29 Nov 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

I'm just astounded that Grade wasn't contractually prevented from such a move. Who on earth negotiated his appointment at the BBC in such a way that the BBC's main competitor could negotiate with him, then hire him, without anyone else at the BBC knowing. So that even BBC News first heard of it from the Telegraph. So that he goes to ITV will full knowledge of BBC plans, of BBC forthcoming productions, of BBC talent and their contracts. I'm not saying he's a dishonourable man, just that, with money such as is being mentioned floating around, ITV likely was not just thinking of obtaining the man, but also his knowledge, and contacts. Most companies would have ensured that such a man in such a position, on leaving them, had to work out of the industry until his information was outdated. Big mistake, but whose? A Culture Secretary? Prime Minister?

A relevant, creative, well-connected and honorable, hands-off replacement? How about Lord Puttnam?

Does no one mentioning "moves to Salford" know that Manchester has been the BBC's second largest production centre for years, with a huge, purpose-built Broadcasting House superbly located on Oxford Road, tight by the station, right between the city centre and the universities, yards from the gay village. Moving that, and much else from London, a couple of miles to Salford was a daft idea. I cannot even see who it was meant to butter-up politically. Gordon's constituency is in Edinburgh, isn't it? Couldn't that city do with some more year-round media jobs?

The BBC's funding is clearly going to have to come - somehow ring-fenced - from general taxation in future, for all the reasons mentioned and more. The license is essentially a poll tax now. It is not too soon to be re-cementing the BBC into place as a permanent foundation of the nation(s). Grade's show-business ways weren't going in that direction, as could have been predicted from the changes during his time at Channel Four.

Brian:

"it won't break our hearts if the licence fee is kept to just under the rate of inflation, and if that prevents the BBC from going ahead with this barmy plan for moving to Manchester, tant mieux"

Agreed (although it's currently a barmy plan for moving to *Salford*). One of /Private Eye/'s anonymous contributors maintained from the start that the Manchester plan was only ever intended to get the BBC through charter renewal, after which it would be quickly and quietly shelved. Half right, I think - it's still in the process of being slowly and noisily shelved.

  • 13.
  • At 07:11 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Jeanette wrote:

I 100% support Rod Liddle in the Spectator this week
and add...
Great news and good riddance to Mr Grade but PLEASE take Mark Thompson with you !(The jacuzzi of cash man)
To think they were instrumental behind the John Humphrys scenario then backed off just because he made a speech (which was in his own time).
However the nation retaliated and the day was one by John Humphrys.

Now Grade can run all the companies he wants and watch his ITV for the Ocado and SAGA ads ...

What exactly has he done in the last 10 years ??

  • 14.
  • At 09:14 PM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • Jeanette wrote:

Apologies

However the nation retaliated and the day was one by John Humphrys.

This should have read the day was indeed a "triumphant one" by John Humphrys
apologies ..

  • 15.
  • At 08:38 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • Hugo Belfounder wrote:


This is clearly a case of dog eat dog.

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