Media: The terrier who rescheduled God sinks his teeth into ITN

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The Independent Online
GREG DYKE often acts as if he aspires to be the Kelvin MacKenzie of independent television. But when he appeared before the National Heritage Select Committee, the bearded, balding chief executive of London Weekend Television could not rival the impact of the editor of the Sun, who threatened to expose MPs' private lives if they dared to impose controls on the press.

Dyke, 46, was there last week in his role as chairman of the ITV Association, to defend the decision - postponed, but not abandoned - to move News at Ten to an earlier time. While he is less arrogant and oikish than MacKenzie, the two share the conviction that, when it comes to popular culture, they are among the few who know what the punters want and are keen to give it them. They are impatient with critics who seek to impose 'quality' on the media and their audiences.

Both are short, terrier-like men who make up in energy and motivational skills what they lack in stature. Both have risen through the ranks by keeping one eye on the ball and the other on the main chance. Both affect chirpy, Cockneyish accents that cloak middle-class origins.

In most disputes affecting ITV in recent years, Dyke has led from the front. He was the first to suggest switching the Sunday evening religious slot to earlier in the day - a move at first vetoed by the Independent Television Commission but finally achieved this year when the ITC's powers were reduced. When ITV lost the Premier League football contract last year to a surprise combination of the BBC and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, it was Dyke who called a press conference to express righteous outrage that the Beeb was supping with the devil.

The ITV bosses chose him as their association's chairman for 1992 and 1993 because they thought they needed his dynamic leadership while the new franchises and Network Centre were finding their feet.

'He's got an argumentative and rebellious personality,' says a colleague, 'but he's intelligent, he gets things done and he says what has to be said.'

He will probably never shake off the reputation of being the man who saved TV-am, ITV's first breakfast station, with Roland Rat. He certainly saved it, but his formula was more sophisticated than the simple introduction of a puppet rodent. He had been brought in to the station in May 1983 when, a few months after its disastrous launch, its peak viewing figure was down to 300,000 - one- fifth that of the BBC's Breakfast Time. Viewers had not taken to the 'Famous Five' - David Frost, Robert Kee, Michael Parkinson, Anna Ford and Angela Rippon - and Dyke saw it as his first job to bring new people in.

Dyke, recruited to television by John Birt as an LWT researcher, had won a reputation as an innovator in producing the Friday Six O'Clock Show. At TV-am, he decided that to reach the mass breakfast audience he had to borrow ideas from the popular press - such as the Diana Dors diet and bingo numbers. Roland Rat began as a device to attract children in the school holidays. By the end of the summer TV- am's viewing figures were regularly exceeding a million.

He is not an advocate of trash, but an iconoclast who abhors being told what to do if it goes against common sense and his company's commercial interest. In time, News at Ten will certainly be moved. While it waits, ITV is losing revenue.

And Dyke's own future? Granada has bought a large stake in LWT, and if the Government eases the rules barring mergers between large ITV companies the two could join up. There is no reason to think he would not be offered a senior position in the new group, but his restless mind may roam elsewhere.

Birt, who gave him his first television job, is now director- general of the BBC, and there has been talk that Dyke may one day be offered something worthwhile there. But a man who so chafes at regulation is probably better off as a buccaneer in the commercial sector. Making him director-general of the BBC would be like making MacKenzie editor of the Times.

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