Greg Dyke took pounds 7m home when he left ITV. Now he's hungry for more. Maggie Brown corners Pearson TV's new boss

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The Independent Online
A small, balding man in a suit and tie rushes to the platform microphone. Pause. He puts on his glasses. Then he says: "Good evening, ladies, gentlemen ... and any boring old farts."

The audience, here to hear him talk about Channel 5, collapses in giggles. Greg Dyke, one of the few British television executives to become a household name, likes to keep his cheeky chappy credentials well polished.

In private, as anyone who knows him will tell you, Dyke is far less jokey, and much more watchful. The pithy one-liners - "Channel 5 will be a burglar's charter" - are dismissed as showbiz froth. Dyke is cooler these days - and learning to keep his counsel.

It's timely. Last year, at the age of 48, he experienced a rare and painful reversal of fortunes in what had been until then a meteoric rise from pushy, penniless Weekend World researcher to chief executive of LWT and multimillionaire status. For LWT, most arrogant of the ITV companies, was taken over in a bitterly contested bid by Granada; when it was all over, the chiefs were the casualties, ousted from their famous South Bank headquarters. The Dyke had broken. So the grapevine said.

Hardly. Exiled to home life in Twickenham, but armed with pounds 7m from share options, Dyke banished boredom by presenting a sports series (during production Will Carling gave his now immortal "old farts" opinion of rugby union officials), invested in Manchester United Football Club and dabbled in the shallows of pulling together a Channel 5 bid. ("It's useful, another broadcasting vehicle for your programming: we can live without it," he says now).

In March, he completed his bounce back, announcing himself as chairman and chief executive of Pearson Television, charged with vastly expanding Pearson plc's media activities. He relishes the task. "The brief I've got is to build a media company. Pearson is not large enough in television. We don't want to be an investor. We are not a media conglomerate that owns 10 per cent or 15 per cent here or there. We want to control our own destiny."

Destiny takes time. Pearson's ambitions are uneasily founded on a global alliance to launch satellite services with BBC Worldwide (progress slow), the television production and studio business of Thames Television (stripped of its ITV franchise in 1992), a 10.8 per cent shareholding in BSkyB and a specialist satellite news service, Financial Times Television, spun off from one of Pearson's jewels, the Financial Times newspaper.

Although television accounts for only a third of the conglomerate, Dyke has been given the nod to spearhead its corporate transformation to a (would-be) media giant both here and abroad. Up to now, Pearson has not found it that easy, being pipped to the post by Rupert Murdoch two years ago over the purchase of Star Television, the Hong Kong pay satellite service.

Whatever, Dyke is back in the big league, thanks to Frank Barlow, chief executive of the main Pearson company. He has entrusted to Dyke (rather than to previous Thames executive Richard Dunn) the key division. Both men are gritty and self-made, except that Barlow, aged 65, clawed his way up through newspapers and is close to retirement while Dyke is a commercial TV dynamo and emphatically not. In fact, he seems utterly determined to build afresh.

"Despite making all that money he remains so hungry," says a colleague, a view echoed throughout the industry. This endears him to Pearson, which for all its quite genuine blue-blooded reputation and tradition of well-bred executives, has not shied away, in typical City tradition, from employing rough diamonds to get results.

The interest is mutual. "I have always been interested in Pearson," Dyke says."Largely because it seemed to me to be the one British company which could become a significant world player." He grins and points out that, as a highly capitalised, but lightly borrowed company, it can build quickly through acquisition.

Dyke had hardly settled behind his new desk before he was announcing its first audacious expansion: pounds 175m for the outright purchase of Grundy Worldwide, the Australian independent producers known here for Neighbours, but which is also one of those rare companies to have cracked the art of adapting successful formats worldwide.

Its founder, Reg Grundy, aged 71, now based in Bermuda, had offered - for public sale through Merrill Lynch in New York - the company he'd set up 35 years ago. A perfect catch for someone with something to prove.

Just six days before the public offer took place, Dyke took Concorde to New York and struck a deal with Grundy in the arrivals lounge for the lot. Dyke makes it sound easy: "I've been a fan of Grundy for some time. They have a certain style of programmes, soaps, game shows, that have been very successful. Under the deal the old man gets the right to keep his name on all productions, during his lifetime.

"British television is very parochial. We also don't have the Grundy formula for making low-cost, high-rating programmes. It [Grundy] has a very strong team who happen to know how to make programmes, and how to run a business and make a profit."

But there are those who say you overpaid.

"They know sod all about the value of Grundy."

He aims to merge the business "back offices" of Thames and Grundy in London while keeping them as separate company presences in separate markets. And Grundy will provide an original five-day-a-week new soap in the event of the Pearson-backed Channel 5 broadcasting bid succeeding. The move also helps to rebuild morale at Thames. The irony, of course, is that in the old days LWT and Thames Television were bitter rivals for the capital's advertising revenue. Dyke shrugs.

"My message is to forget about the past. It's gone."

The future then. There will be new investment to enhance Thames's role as one of the UK's leading independent programme makers. Dyke says The Bill, which Thames makes for ITV, is being spun off as a separate production company and encouraged to diversify into other projects. It is making one-hour specials for ITV, and directing its writers into new dramas.

Not that creative struggle is any substitute for high finance. Dyke is clearly, if quietly, still on the takeover trail: one obvious move is to buy another large TV producer, perhaps in Europe. Who? He won't say. The other, more tricky problem, is to steer Pearson into global broadcasting with local partners. It is shortly launching a satellite service in India.

At home, Dyke's dislike of passive stakes has led him to sell Pearson's 15 per cent stake in Yorkshire Tyne-Tees Television briskly, but he does not seem to have decided yet what to do with the 10.9 per cent stake in BSkyB. Its management is dominated by Rupert Murdoch appointees, while current chairman Gerry Robinson, chief executive of Granada, ousted him from LWT. "It's quite a good investment. But it gives us very little," Dyke says bleakly. When he was an ITV boss, he was virulently anti-Sky, attacking its Premier League football deal, coining catchy slogans such as "movies are free on ITV". The good old days.

Insiders say he is being given a relatively free hand - provided his acumen brings results. But fashioning an international media conglomerate and mixing it with the likes of Rupert Murdoch is a big jump. Roland Rat's dad is going to need all his cunning. Yet Dyke seems relaxed, even when complaining that the only real curb on his Plans for World Domination is time. "There's never enough of it," the man says. "Running, always running to keep up."

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