Grade A or just a B plus?

Michael Grade saved Channel Four, gave its programme makers freedom and defended them bravely, but let's not run away with the idea that all at the station is rosy. By Thomas Sutcliffe

It looked like Kevin Keegan all over again - a well-respected captain goes over the side in mid-ocean, no explanation offered (yet), leaving behind him a crew torn between respect and disappointment. In Channel Four's offices yesterday there was said to be some anger about the abruptness of Michael Grade's announcement that he would be spending more time with his other business interests - though that anger is telling in itself, a testimony to the particular role Grade played at the channel and the particular sort of dependency he inspired in his colleagues. He is said to have turned to his own particular skill, scheduling, for an explanatory metaphor - we retire programmes when they've reached their peak, he told some colleagues, so I thought I should obey the same principle. Go out at the top. But the faint sense of abandonment detectable yesterday may suggest two things: that there is no easy consensus on whether the summit has yet been reached and that, to an unusual degree in the cynical world of broadcasting politics, Michael Grade aroused confidence in those who worked for him. People don't get angry when a bad boss leaves, they get the champagne out.

Certainly, in commercial terms, Channel Four is in good enough shape to permit the departure of the chief executive who transformed it from the television equivalent of a Site of Special Scientific Interest into a robust ecology well able to withstand the abrasions of the modern world. He has won one important battle - that of the changing the funding formula which resulted in a public service minority channel subsidising the activities of commercial broadcasters - and gone some way to winning another - though the idea of privatising Channel Four is not exactly dead and buried, it is not currently part of the Government's financial planning and will not be handed over to a Labour government as a temptation to be heroically resisted. This achievement shouldn't be underestimated. "If Channel Four hadn't proved its ability to win advertising they would have been sunk," says one rival broadcaster. Peter Salmon, who left the channel to be Director of Programmes at Granada, puts the case even more strongly: "I think he saved it for us all. It could have sunk into obscurity and he saved it". If Channel Four is still an organisation that can nip at the heels of government and twist the nose of moral policemen then that is to his credit.

But the relative financial equilibrium may be part of the problem: "He wasn't a little fight man ... he was a big fight man," said one former colleague, pointing out that most of the big fights were finished. What remained was more detailed and more difficult - the nitty-gritty of day-to-day quality control and in that sphere there were already intimations that Grade's attention had begun to drift. Last year insiders were talking of his perceived detachment from the mundane programming issues and Grade himself talked privately of his days in television being numbered, not for any external reasons but because he felt he had achieved all that he was going to. The privatisation battle briefly revived his energies but that tonic was never going to last. So while some insiders were surprised (and hurt) by the timing, few were utterly astonished by the decision itself.

He may also, though this is psychological guesswork, have sensed that his own talents were less easy to apply than they had once been. In programming terms - as opposed to commercial health - it is much harder to say that he is leaving the channel in first-rate condition. A series of recent failures in popular programming - the Gaby Roslin chat-show, the woefully misconceived game show Wanted, to name two of the more conspicuous examples - have rattled Channel Four's confidence in its ability to compete critically with its natural rivals at the BBC. While Film on Four has become more vigorous under Grade and while the channel had conspicuous success with some canny pieces of purchasing (Friends in particular) the home-grown product has been more variable. The Big Breakfast, one of the schedule landmarks which Grade did not inherit from Jeremy Isaacs, has proved unable to prevent the defection of its viewers. Even one of the cast-iron successes, the Irish comedy Father Ted, had come despite Grade's instincts, rather than because of them. He is reported to have been unconvinced by the first series.

The fact that he let it go ahead, though, should stand in his favour. He is, one colleague observes, a man with a talent for leaving talent alone, a verdict confirmed by almost everyone who has worked with him. He is "an enabler", a man whose backing is dependable even when the weather turns foul. Though the fact that he was chief executive, rather than director of programmes for the network, meant that his responsibility for what appeared on air was always negotiable, he never retreated into niceties of structure. He would, naturally, be the first to take fire if programmes caused controversy, and it was one of his signal merits that he rarely flinched from the role of absorbing the punches, however below the belt they were. Even when external criticism coincided with his own doubts ( as it was rumoured to have done with The Girlie Show and The Word, for example) he was prepared to stand by his personal commitments, a rare enough virtue in the world of television management to be notable. This makes it difficult to judge where precisely the praise and blame for Channel Four's editorial condition should lie - but it would probably be fair to say that Grade's greatest talent lay in the inspiration of television talent rather than in any personal formal inventions. What was conspicuous during Grade's incumbency was a sense of collegiate purpose utterly at odds with the internecine strife more familiar at the BBC, where department fought department and producer fought producer. It wasn't uncommon, as a critic, to be taken to task by a Channel Four editor for the harshness of a verdict on a colleague's programme - BBC producers would more often attack you for not having been savage enough.

Whatever he does next, Grade leaves behind him a uniquely desirable vacancy, and not just because of the widely reported munificence of the salary. Paradoxically Channel Four, the most recent arrival in the terrestrial broadcasting landscape (though Channel Five will change that) is also, in some senses, the most old-fashioned organisation - one which allows its chief executive an unusual freedom to concentrate on broadcasting in its purest sense. Because it is a publishing house, drawing on independent producers to make its programmes, the core disciplines of scheduling, purchasing and commissioning occupy far more time than the agonies of line-management and efficiency studies. It is less bureaucratic than the BBC, less profit-driven than the independent companies (burdened with their overpriced franchises) - an arena for the sort of purely creative broadcasting skills which are increasingly endangered in other areas. Whoever replaces him as chief executive will have to have the editorial strength and taste to restore the intellectual fabric but they will have Michael Grade to thank for the fact that the building is still there at alln

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