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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links