Grade - big socks to fill...
- 28 Nov 06, 08:15 AM
Congratulations 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 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.