Rob Brown column

The race to grab the plum job in TV leads to a remote mansion. It's Channel 4's idea of a secret. The fools!
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I was summoned once to Donington Hall, the impressive pile in rural Derbyshire which serves as the HQ of British Midland. The airline flew me down from Edinburgh for a feature I was writing to mark some anniversary of its Anglo-Scottish shuttle service. Planespotters loved it, but, truth to tell, I am a bit prouder of my eyewitness report on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I would give my eye teeth, though, to be a fly on the wall at Donington Hall this week as a selection panel completes its formal interviews to find a new chief executive for Channel 4. The search for Michael Grade's successor is being conducted there because C4's chairman, Sir Michael Bishop, is also chairman of BM.

You can see what they were thinking. Rural Derbyshire represents the back of beyond for London's broadcasting bosses and, thus, a fine location in which to conduct such a necessarily secretive process. The fools! They should just have gone to the Groucho Club, for nothing remains a secret for long in Luvviedom.

Those of us who care about such things have a fair idea who has been summoned to Derbyshire to present their Manifesto for Four. Unless the rumour mill has gone awry, the candidates include two top men from the BBC: Alan Yentob, director of programmes, and Michael Jackson, director of television and controller of BBC1.

Indeed, there has even been speculation that the deputy director general of the BBC, Bob Phyllis, is also among the candidates. But in an interview with Media+, conducted by Mathew Horsman, Phyllis denies it.

The situation could have been different had the job come up a year ago when Phyllis was feeling less than delighted with his boss John Birt, who kept him in the dark about plans to restructure the BBC World Service (which Phyllis formerly ran and retains a great affection for).

Greg Dyke, the head of Pearson TV (a major shareholder in Channel 5) has also been linked with the post. I can believe this, if only because, at the launch of C5, Dyke spent more time enthusing about the Channel 4 chief executive position. "The best jawb in British Brawdcasting," he told me between canapes. But the word is that Dyke would not deign to being interviewed. So what? If the Channel 4 board wants him enough it will find ways of sounding him out.

It went to the trouble of bringing Howard Springer, the former head of America's CBS, over from New York. But Springer, a 55-year-old Welsh expat who has not lived in Britain for 30 years, has decided apparently that he would like, for a swan-song, to revive the US division of Sony rather than run a relatively small television station here.

Someone who is said to be keen to come to this drizzly little island is Malcolm Long, who heads up SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), Australia's version of Channel 4.

There are, of course, several obvious internal candidates. Colin Levanthal, currently head of acquisition, has been with Channel 4 since day one and has played a major role in building its reputation in the film world. Likewise, Stewart Butterfield, C4's director of advertising, sales and marketing, can point to an impressive record.

And last, but certainly not least, there is Channel 4's director of programmes, John Willis, who would doubtless win on the first ballot if the matter were to be decided by a staff poll. As well as steadying the nerves of fellow programme-makers, Willis would ensure a smooth and steady transition.

But he will not get the job if he simply projects himself as the continuity candidate. "It's not time for a change" would be no more effective in this contest than it would be in the general election.

Willis would appear to realise that. At the recent industry gathering in The Business Design Centre in Islington, he sought to share his vision of how Channel 4 can continue not just to survive, but flourish, in the multi-channel digital universe. Basically, if I got his drift, he wanted the station to remain true to its founding ideals but extend its brand by developing an art house film channel.

His drawback is that he does not come across as a great visionary, who could truly inspire and energise every department of the company. Certainly, there seem little chance that he could ever become the Face of Four in the way Michael Grade was. Then again, none of the rumoured candidates, including that White City wunderkind, Michael Jackson, could match Grade for charisma.

If such an all-round replacement does not appear to be on offer, the board of Channel 4 may be tempted to appoint John Willis on a two- or three-year contract and challenge him to prove himself. It does, after all, have time to play with. The digital revolution is not unfolding that fast. But in the longer term there is no doubt that Channel 4 will need a shrewd and buccaneering businessman to steer it through the stormy waters ahead. As well as facing up the challenge of audience fragmentation in the multi-channel era, it still has to resolve its funding dispute with ITV. The spectre of privatisation continues to hover no matter which party wins power on 1 May.

When the board meets next Monday to consider what has emerged from the headquarters of British Midland, it should bear in mind that Channel 4 is the Virgin of television, in need of its own Richard Branson to boost its profile and bottom line. The station pretty much had that in Michael Grade.n

Bob Phillis is featured in the Bottom Line, Page 10.