Michael Harrison's Outlook: After years of being television's whipping boy, ITV has the chance at last to make the Grade

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The ITV saga has had more twists and turns than an episode of Prime Suspect. But who could possibly have anticipated yesterday's plot development - the defection of Michael Grade from the BBC to become executive chairman of its biggest rival? At a stroke, the appointment of Britain's most charismatic and talented broadcasting executive to ITV surely kills off any lingering prospect of it being taken over by NTL. The cable company's biggest shareholder Sir Richard Branson tacitly admitted as much in his gracious welcoming of Mr Grade into the job. More than that, it buys the broadcaster precious time and space to put its house in order and begin to rebuild its shattered morale, reputation and audience share, free from the distraction of perennial bid speculation.

No wonder ITV's new chairman was quite literally cheered into his new Grays Inn Road headquarters yesterday morning by ecstatic staff. Shareholders also seem happy even though combining the roles of chairman and chief executive in one man does not tick all the corporate governance boxes.

Not everyone, of course, was thrilled by the move. In a previous incarnation at Channel 4, Mr Grade was dubbed Britain's Pornographer-in-Chief by the Daily Mail. Today he is the BBC's public enemy number one, having left the corporation rather in the lurch in the midst of its charter renewal negotiations with the Government. Mr Grade made light of this yesterday with breathtaking insouciance, suggesting that the waters would close over his tenure at the Beeb so quickly that in a week's time a call to Broadcasting House would elicit the response "Michael Who?".

With hindsight, perhaps we should not have been so utterly surprised by ITV's daring coup. When the company's previous chief executive Charles Allen was dispatched in August, the chairman Sir Peter Burt was asked who his ideal replacement might be. He replied that it would be someone who combined a brilliant business brain with an unrivalled flair for broadcasting but unfortunately Michael Grade already had a job at the BBC. At the time, the comment seemed full of wistful regret rather than deadly intent. Now we know better, for barely a month later the first approach was made to Mr Grade, though one suspects that ITV's deputy chairman Sir George Russell was as much the architect of the deal as Sir Peter.

Dramatis personae aside, quite how the talks managed to stay secret in the gossip-fuelled world of television when other candidates were being paraded and then rejected on an almost daily basis will remain one of life's minor mysteries. Mr Grade is uncomfortable with the suggestion that, in returning to the place where he began his television career, he is in some way going back to his spiritual home. Perhaps that is just as well because today ITV is unrecognisable from the broadcaster he left 25 years ago and an alien world altogether compared with the mighty empire his uncle, Lord Grade, helped create a generation ago.

Multi-channel television and the internet have ravaged ITV's share of audiences and advertising, it is locked into a regulatory formula which further whittles away at revenues and it seems to have lost much of its precious identity thanks to overfeeding on a remorseless diet of soap and second-rate reality television. Where ITV has chosen to embrace the internet revolution - through the expensive acquisition of the social networking site Friends Reunited, for instance - it does not give the impression of understanding the medium or exploiting it to maximum advantage. Last, but not least, there's now a 2,000lb gorilla in the corner of the room in the shape of Sky's Rupert Murdoch and his 18 per cent ITV shareholding.

Mr Grade's response to the competitive threat is simply to ignore the competition and let them worry for once about what ITV is doing. It must come as a surprise, not least to advertisers, to discover that for all its critics ITV still accounts for 40 of the 50 top programmes being screened today and has scored twice as many "hits" - defined as shows which attract five million or more viewers - as the BBC this year.

In short there is, says Mr Grade, nothing much wrong with the strategy. There is, however, room for improvement in execution. As for potential conflicts of interest that might arise from Sky's shareholding in ITV, he will deal with those as, when and if they arise.

After ITV's succession of beancounters, the sense of creative liberation he promises to bring is palpable. It is that which imbues ITV with most hope for the future. Mr Grade's modest aspiration is to make it the most loved, the most relevant, the most inventive and the most talked-about channel on the air. And indeed, he makes it all sound so beguilingly simple. It isn't, of course, which is why he stands to pocket £9m over the next three years if he can pull it off. His former employer, along with Sky and a resurgent NTL, will do their utmost to make sure he doesn't. But for the first time in an awfully long time, ITV is on the front foot.

ScotPower: A lack of vision and strategy

And then there were two. The Spanish armada put into port again yesterday and into its bowels disappeared ScottishPower. Iberdrola's acquisition of the business, using a mixture of cash happily stumped up by, among others, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and its own highly-rated paper, means that only Centrica and Scottish & Southern Energy remain standing as independent, UK-owned and quoted energy suppliers. With Russia's Gazprom and Germany's RWE sniffing around, you have to wonder how long they will survive the overseas onslaught.

Does it matter if we have to rely upon the French, the Germans, the Spanish or even the Russians to keep the lights burning? Perhaps not. But it is a sad indictment of the short-sightedness of UK pension funds and the strategic failings of our home-grown utilities that Britain today finds it hard to muster a national champion that can punch its weight overseas. Save for National Grid.

ScottishPower, like Powergen before it, bet on transatlantic expansion to maintain its independence and lost. ScottishPower bought the wrong US company and Powergen lacked the balance-sheet muscle to buy another one. S&SE and ScottishPower could have made a formidable combination but a mixture of battling egos and myopic Scottish politics prevented an alliance.

Much has been made of the tax breaks which Spanish companies enjoy back home when they go on overseas shopping trips. It is true that Iberdrola's ability to write off ScottishPower's goodwill against tax will reduce the cost of its purchase by about €1bn.

But it is not subsidies such as these which have fuelled a succession of Spanish takeovers of airports, banks and mobile networks but a broader European vision. Iberdrola's home market, like ScottishPower's, is no longer protected. It can see that once Brussels finally breaks open the entrenched energy monopolies elsewhere in Europe, only those with the foresight to move beyond their national boundaries will survive. Iberdrola's shareholders seem happy to provide it with the currency to act. UK pension funds seem happier to sell out than to back the management of British utilities attempting to halt and reverse the tide of corporate activity.

Centrica has circled the wagons and jettisoned everything which is non-core in an attempt to secure its future energy supplies and preserve its independence. It may not be enough.

m.harrison@independent.co.uk

Comments