In the dream-team line-up of a year ago Airey – very much a Grade protegée at that time – looked by far the strongest internal candidate as his successor. John Cresswell, chief operating officer, is too faceless; Rupert Howell, commercial director, has certainly got the personality but lacks a serious track-record in top-level TV management. The other internal candidate, head of programmes Peter Fincham, had only just joined as Airey left, after facing the music over the BBC’s “Crowngate” fiasco (an improbable saga of Her Majesty spitting tin tacks backwards). At any event, he would be unlikely to present Airey with serious competition if she were to throw her hat in the ring.
But will she? Airey quit as ITV’s head of production, essentially, because Grade broke his word. He had given everyone to believe that he would step down as chief executive in 2009. But such was the gravity of ITV’s crisis, and the extent of his vanity, that when his much-touted programme-led recovery failed to materialize on schedule, he decided to extend his tenure by another year. Result: Airey lost patience and jumped aboard the nearest sea-worthy vessel, Five, as chief executive. Irony number one: had Airey stayed, given her strong previous record as managing director of Sky Television and her ruthless boardroom skills, she would now be contemplating becoming chief executive of ITV a year earlier.
Irony number two. Five has its problems. As a johnny-come-lately terrestrial channel, its audience is too small, and too ill-defined, for it to survive long term in the era of digital multichannel TV. Indeed, a merger has already been proposed with Channel 4 as a solution to their collective troubles, though this seems to have gained little traction with the industry or the regulator, Ofcom. On the other hand, Five is wholly owned by RTL (and eventually Bertelsman, the biggest media owner in Europe). Should break-up, or takeover, of ITV ever emerge as the preferred solution to its intractable problems, then RTL would have to be in the frame. For Airey, would it be better to bid for the present ITV job or bide her time?
If offered the ITV job, it might well be because ITV shareholders see her as a handy exit strategy. Who better to manage the handover of the company to RTL? In which case, she would not hold the job for very long, though she would be a great deal richer at the conclusion of business. If, on the other hand, she stays on at Five, the merger might never happen. In which case, she will have passed by a great opportunity, perhaps her only opportunity, to be chief executive of a significant broadcast media company.
Of course, Airey is not the only external candidate to be fancied for the job. Tony Ball, former chief executive of BSkyB, and Stephen Carter, currently communications minister (but for how much longer?), must be considered formidable alternatives. Carter came close to being offered the ITV job last time round, after a half-way decent stint as coo at stricken cable company NTL, but lost interest after it emerged that Grade was going to be not the non-executive but the executive chairman.
Right now, Grade is merely a lingering embarrassment – a chairman stripped of his executive powers. Any of the external candidates would make his instant dismissal a precondition of taking the job. All that he is doing by staying is blighting the chances of the internal candidates.