ITV makes the Grade

Michael Grade is leaving the BBC to join ITV.

Michael Grade has resigned as BBC chairman and is to join ITV, the corporation’s main terrestrial rival.

ITV, which has been struggling with falling advertising and ratings, said the appointment was a “real coup”.

Well, it is for ITV. I’m not sure it’s the smartest career move for Grade (who I know slightly and have always liked a lot; among other things, he’s a serious cigar smoker). He’s been offered huge amounts of money — a pay package which could hit £2 million a year, compared to the £140,000 he earns now as Chairman of the Beeb. But when he took the BBC job, I had assumed that he had made enough money not to have to worry about it for the rest of his life. Maybe I was naive.

His departure is a terrible blow to the BBC, but he has done great things in a short time. He was appointed in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry, when the Corporation was bruised and demoralised by Hutton’s ludicrous whitewash of the government, and for many people his appointment signified that the BBC would survive and bounce back. And it has.

“Being the Chairman of the BBC was the most unexpected job I have ever had”, he writes in his farewell letter.

The welcome you gave me on my arrival is embedded deep within my emotional dna. At that moment I realised what was at stake for me, for the BBC.

So much has been accomplished in the last two and a half years that I feel comfortable that I have achieved what I set out to achieve – namely restore the equilibrium of the this great institution, to lead the process to appoint a new DG [director general], to secure a new ten year Charter and to reform the governance of the Corporation.

With the help of my fellow governors and the new Governance Unit, the future is secure, the independence of the BBC is safeguarded and, most important of all, our programmes across all media are maintaining the overwhelming support of the licence fee payers.

All of that’s broadly true. He claims in his letter that the real reason he’s going is that he hates not being involved in (TV) programming. (As BBC Chairman, he has to take a hands-off attitude and leave it all to the management.) I can believe that: he comes from a showbiz family. One of his uncles (Lew) was a great ITV entrepreneur; another was a theatrical agent. Grade has entertainment in his blood. As Executive Chairman of ITV, he will be able to get stuck into scheduling and commissioning and luring talent and all the stuff he loves doing.

But… The problem is that Grade is a wizard at popular broadcasting — the few-to-many stuff that was the basis of the old media-ecosystem. But that world is eroding fast. ITV’s chronic problems are partly to do with the abysmal management it has had for nearly a decade. But it’s also due to the fact that its glory days are over — because broadcast is in inexorable decline. Michael Grade was a wizard in the old system. My conjecture is that he’s about to start playing Canute in the new.