The man who fell to Earth

David Elstein, wunderkind of BSkyB, is to oversee the problematic launch of the latest terrestrial channel. Meg Carter reports

When news broke last Friday that David Elstein, BSkyB's head of programming, was to jump ship to take over the helm at Channel 5, few were surprised. Rumours of his imminent departure had been circulating for at least a year, and it was no secret that he had long coveted the top job at Channel 5.

For the man who, when director of programmes at Thames Television, drafted the first Channel 5 tender document, back in 1991, and subsequently a second - in the form of the Sky-led New Century consortium's bid last year (of which he was chief executive designate) - it's really a case of third time lucky. While his achievements at Sky are considerable, even they, it seems, cannot compete with the chance to head a national, terrestrial TV channel. In short, to join the mainstream elite of top TV bosses and, notably, to be able to compete on equal terms with his arch-rival Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4.

Elstein's reputation as "the smartest man in British television" has been honed by an impressive stint at BSkyB, where he is widely credited with being the "presentable face" of satellite television, casting aside once and for all Sky's "council house TV" tag. Undoubtedly, he is satellite television's most eloquent and convincing advocate. But it is his previous track record that tells the tale.

Elstein, now 51, joined the BBC as its youngest-ever general trainee in 1964 after gaining a double first in history from Cambridge at the age of 19. After four years with the BBC he moved to Thames, where he spent 14 years as a producer/director; he also worked at London Weekend, Goldcrest, Primetime and Brook Productions, his own company. In 1986, he returned to Thames as director of programmes, a post he held until joining Sky in 1993.

As a programme-maker, his achievements are impressive: he has worked as editor, producer and director on series including Panorama, This Week, Weekend World and The World at War. As a commissioner, his credits include introducing US successes Murder One and The X Files to the UK. He also has a penchant for start-ups; he was involved in the launches of BBC 2, Channel 4 and A Week in Politics.

Elstein insists that the split was "amicable". But it is understood he was increasingly frustrated that the bulk of his work was about marketing rather than programming. He is also believed to have felt he had little say in key business policy-making; that was left to the "big boys" - Sam Chisholm and David Chance. In public, however, he was typically suave: the toughest challenges were behind the satellite broadcaster, he said. The big challenge in British broadcasting lay elsewhere, at Channel 5.

Elstein's contract at Sky has, in fact, been open since the end of last year, when he decided not to renew it for a further three years. "He has certainly been keeping his eyes open as to where next he should go," one insider acknowledges. "He was approached informally a couple of weeks ago by a [Channel 5] shareholder who didn't know how readily available he could be." Elstein apparently made his decision fast - informing Sky boss Sam Chisholm only last week, calling a press conference that Friday and officially joining the Channel 5 Broadcasting board the same day.

Sky confirms that as yet it has no idea who will fill Elstein's shoes; there is no obvious internal candidate. But for the time being, industry speculation rests elsewhere. Just what is going on at Channel 5? For Elstein takes a senior position that, until last week at least, was already filled - by the former managing director of London News Network, Ian Ritchie.

A Channel 5 insider denies it is a slap in the face to the former chief executive, who now becomes Channel 5's chief operating officer: "Ian remains committed to remaining at the channel, although as number two." Ritchie, it seems, has made the ultimate sacrifice - in the best interests of the channel. "Only the top job would have tempted Elstein," another insider adds. "And thank goodness we've got him."

For Channel 5, while insisting it remains on course for its January 1997 launch date, still has many obstacles to overcome - not least a retuning exercise which, it now appears, has been dramatically under-budgeted. Whether this is directly connected with Ritchie's effective demotion remains subject for debate. "The pounds 55m allocated to video retuning certainly didn't come from Ian," one insider points out. Others claim he simply lacked the expertise and depth of knowledge to head the launch.

"Channel 5 certainly doesn't need rescuing," Elstein said last week. Modestly describing himself as an extra pair of hands, he claims he brings skills complementary to those already in place. Without doubt, he will be an articulate front man for Channel 5, which is what the station needs: with five months to go before launch it remains a shadowy concept to most of the British public.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
News
i100
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown, daughter of the late singer Whitney Houston, poses at the premiere of
people
News
people
News
The frequency with which we lie and our ability to get away with it both increase to young adulthood then decline with age, possibly because of changes that occur in the brain
scienceRoger Dobson knows the true story, from Pinocchio to Pollard
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Cambridge / London - £47,000

£40000 - £47000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing ...

Sauce Recruitment: Sales Executive - Consumer Exhibition - 12 month Fixed Term Con

£20000 - £22000 per annum + up to £22K + commission : Sauce Recruitment: The ...

Sauce Recruitment: Senior Sales Executive - Premium Food and Drink Events

£24000 - £26000 per annum + up to £26K + team commission: Sauce Recruitment: H...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Planning & Analysis Analyst (FP&A)- Entertainment

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A major film studio are looking ...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen