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
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The Independent Online
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.