Channel 4 pulls plug on £10m Ross deal

He is due to leave the BBC in the summer, but if the station where he made his name doesn't want him, where else can he turn? Ian Burrell reports

Where now for Jonathan Ross? Two months ago, after he announced his departure from the BBC in a deft PR play that allowed him to take control of the story, he was said to be weighing up interest from at least one American network while British commercial broadcasters were being invited to form a queue to make their offers for his signature.

But as he approaches the end of his lucrative BBC contract in July, there doesn't seem to be much on the table after all. Sky, which was tipped in January as an organisation with the money to keep Ross in the manner to which he is accustomed, said yesterday that it was not interested. "We are not in discussions with him, he's not someone we are talking to."

ITV, whose director of television, Peter Fincham, worked with Ross at BBC1, is also cool. Sources say they are "not in the market for a golden handcuffs deal".

And Channel 4, which is where Ross began his television career, is also getting cold feet over a deal that would have earned the presenter's own production company, Hotsauce, a reported £10m. Discussions that have taken place over a period of several weeks have been put on hold pending the arrival of new chief executive, David Abraham, who arrives from UKTV in May.

It is understood that senior Channel 4 executives, who know that Abraham has a brief to change the editorial direction of the organisation, are unwilling to conclude a deal which could look like a first statement of intent from the new regime. It is also likely that those executives had sensed from Abraham a reluctance to make a commitment to a two-year project which would reportedly guarantee production of 20 chat shows by Hotsauce.

That leaves America. "Ross may pursue career in America after quitting the BBC," ran one headline after the presenter said he would not be renegotiating an extension to his three-year contract with the corporation worth £18m. Much was made of a comment by Ross on Twitter, of which he is a prolific user: "It's annoying but someone has flown in from LA so it would be rude not to show up!"

How realistic is the idea that Ross could emulate the American success of British entertainment television stars such as Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan (albeit in the talk show genre)? An American television producer in the late-night arena said there were no obvious openings for Ross. "It's over-saturated right now. It's not a good time to be starting a new talk show over here. Conan O'Brien will be starting his in the Fall, that will take the Fox slot. There aren't really any other openings. You have Jay [Leno] returning and [David] Letterman is not going anywhere after his scandal. Jimmy Fallon is doing really well and Jimmy Kimmel has a late-night show. And there's Craig Ferguson who, for some reason, some people love. We are full."

Ross has attracted attention Stateside, partly for his ability to attract Hollywood stars on to his BBC show, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, and partly because of the language he has used in interviewing them, particularly his obscene propositioning of Gwyneth Paltrow. But he has also attracted criticism, notably from Fallon, who accused the Briton of copying his idea of asking a guest to solemnly read the lyrics to Lady Gaga's song "Poker Face". "Jonathan, what's going on?" Fallon said on air. "What's the deal, buddy? Can we help you? He's run out of ideas."

Steven Gaydos, an executive editor of Variety magazine in Los Angeles, was more polite. "I don't see it immediately but there was a man named David Frost who did quite well in the United States," he said. "When Jim Carrey was on [Ross's] show he was being incredibly zany and Jonathan Ross kept up with him every bit of the way. Does he have the chops? Absolutely." But according to Edward Helmore, a New York-based media writer, Ross's style might be too crude for American audiences. "I don't think Americans like overt vulgarity. We are in a really conservative period, it's really prudish here now," he said. "Lots of British stars, like Robbie Williams, come over wanting to sell the cheeky chappie, slightly foppish Britishness and it often falls flat. Simon Cowell works because he plays to what American entertainment expects from a British accent; bitchy, cutting and belittling. He's like the bad guy in the James Bond movie."

Ross is keen to spend time with his family before his next working challenge. When he does return his choices may be fewer than he had hoped. But when, much earlier in his career, he left Channel 4, commentators who thought he was finished were dumbfounded by his comeback as Britain's best-paid television presenter.

Despite what his critics might claim, British broadcasting does not have sufficient comparable presenting talent to turn its back on Jonathan Ross. The presenter's alma mater, Channel 4, as it throws off the mantle of Big Brother, is understandably nervous of making Ross the standard bearer for its new era. That doesn't mean he won't be part of its plans. He has recently filmed A Comedy Roast, a new Channel 4 show hosted by Jimmy Carr and to be screened next month. And if Channel 4 waits a little longer, and the £6m-a-year man's options remain limited, it might get itself an unexpected bargain.

TV trailblazers: The big earners

*Michael Aspel

Became the highest-paid broadcaster in the late 1980s when he signed a £1m contract with the BBC to present This Is Your Life. A former tea boy, he fronted chat show Aspel and Company and the Antiques Roadshow, and was recognised with an OBE in 1993.

*Chris Evans

The loudmouth of TV and radio who resigned on air from Radio 1 and was sacked from Virgin Radio for failing to turn up after a bender, Evans became the country's wealthiest entertainer when he sold his Ginger Media Group for £35.5m in 2000. Now on Radio 2.

*Jeremy Paxman

Paxo is said to pocket £1m a year with Newsnight and University Challenge. Made headlines when a Sunday paper claimed he charges up to £25,000 an hour for speaking engagements.

*David Letterman

Said to earn $45m a year for his Late Show with Letterman. The host foiled a blackmail plot by a producer who threatened to expose his affairs with women working on the show, confessing on air with typical deadpan humour.

*Oprah Winfrey

The doyenne of television chat Oprah Winfrey is reportedly the richest woman in entertainment, earning $275m last year. The US host has gone from her chat show to an empire of a production company, magazines, books, a website and a radio station, and is launching a TV channel.