The too-cosy tale of TV folk at the top

As the latest top-level appointments show, terrestrial broadcasters are struggling to find the new talent they need to compete in a multi-channel age. Raymond Snoddy reports
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The Independent Online

If you are a conspiracy theorist you could consider blaming the Queen for the latest round of musical chairs at the top of British broadcasting.

Tomorrow, Peter Fincham, former controller of BBC1, turns up at ITV as director of television. At approximately the same time – give or take half an hour or so – Jay Hunt will return to the BBC to take over Fincham's old job. Formerly head of daytime television at the BBC, Hunt was director of programmes at Five for a record-breaking three months last year before admitting that she had allowed herself to be seduced back to the corporation.

Also tomorrow, Ben Gale, the least well known of the trio of appointees, will make the reverse trip from White City, where he has been the BBC's commissioning editor for factual features and formats for at least 16 months, to Five's Convent Garden headquarters. There, he will sink into Hunt's old chair as director of programmes.

None of tomorrow's new appointments would have happened, of course, if Fincham had not upset Buckingham Palace by taking at face value an inaccurate promotional clip for the documentary A Year with the Queen.

He proclaimed grandly at a press launch that the programme showed the Queen storming out of a photographic session "in a huff", when it showed no such thing. The BBC decided that Fincham, despite being a successful BBC1 controller, had to fall on his sword.

There was inevitable collateral damage when ITV's executive chairman, Michael Grade, quickly swooped on Fincham. In an episode that brought to mind the Stalinist era, Simon Shaps, ITV's then director of television, who was losing his job, confessed in a public statement that the idea of hiring Fincham had been his all along.

It was Grade, while chairman of the BBC, who poached Channel 4's chief executive, Mark Thompson, to be BBC director-general before himself doing an unexpected midnight flit to ITV, where he has since presided over a sagging share price.

The music starts up again and the same small number of players go round and round, some of them apparently casual about contracts and obligations as they bank the salary increases, promotions and bonuses.

The headhunters involved in broadcasting appointments fish in a tiny pool – almost a puddle – an incestuous world where everyone is known to everyone else, and surnames are scarcely necessary. It's a case of what Michael, Peter, Mark or Dawn will be up to next.

Actually, Dawn has been up to quite a lot. Last week's round of musical chairs was particularly spectacular, even by the broadcasting industry's remarkable standards, as Dawn Airey, ITV's head of global content, jumped ship to become chairman and chief executive of Five after only eight months in her post.

In the past few days ITV executives were still expressing astonishment privately that Airey could, as they saw it, be sitting round the board table of a FTSE 100 company while apparently talking to headhunters about the possibility of joining a direct rival. As a result, she could be on gardening leave for up to a year.

Here again the collateral damage was considerable, with Jane Lighting, the current Five chief executive, departing to spend six months on gardening leave, to be joined in horticultural pursuits by her colleague Lisa Opie, the channel's managing director of content, who resigned.

Is there any business sense to any of this, when the cost of headhunters, payoffs, gardening leave and the sheer managerial disruption caused is so obviously enormous?

It smacks of desperation as Britain's traditional terrestrial broadcasters come under the cosh from everything from the rise of digital television – multi-channel and on-demand viewing – to the internet and the impact of broadband and social networks on consumer behaviour. The broadcasters resemble nothing so much as Premiership football teams sinking down the league and becoming ever more fearful of relegation. The call goes out for the manager or striker with that magic touch who can suddenly produce a miracle, and the chairman is prepared to pay whatever it takes.

In such a business environment, even those whom no one is interested in poaching enjoy lavish "loyalty" bonuses for merely honouring their contracts.

But does it work? Are there such miracle workers outside a sub-cult of the personality who can make enough difference in the ratings to compensate for the dislocation and cost caused by their recruitment?

At ITV, Grade has the ability through the judicious application of jokes, enthusiasm and hard work to inspire the team to perform above themselves, while also bringing in top players from other sides. But during his watch, the ITV share price has plummeted from 120p to 68p, making the company vulnerable to a takeover – something that would spark yet another round of musical chairs. And somehow he failed to inspire Airey enough to stay.

As an independent producer, Fincham made millions, was responsible for integrating Talkback and Thames to create one of the largest independent production companies, and has a sure touch with light panel formats. He was behind both They Think It's All Over and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He also managed to pull off a remarkable job swap when he went to the BBC. The then BBC1 controller, Lorraine Heggessey, went the other way to run Talkback Thames and make some serious money.

Everyone swears Fincham was the best BBC1 controller at least since Heggessey, but as there can be as much as a two-year time lag in commissioning and creating a new schedule, and the industry is nothing if not collaborative, it not always clear who deserves credit for what.

Hunt, after her brief sojourn at Five, was hailed by Jana Bennett – the director of BBC Vision, and something of a fixed point at the corporation – as someone with "impeccable credentials as a commissioner, channel leader and journalist".

What of Airey, when she finally gets to her new job at Five? She certainly knows the way. She is a former chief executive from its old days, and will find many things familiar. The channel is stuck around the 5 per cent viewing share, when the ambition once was to push on towards 10 per cent to start challenging Channel 4.

A brisk, no-nonsense executive who speaks her mind and has done her regulation short course at the Harvard Business School along with the likes of Greg Dyke, Airey has really always been a broadcasting executive, with no background in actually making programmes.

So much for Dawn, Jay and Peter. Of the new arrivals, Ben Gale – he's not well known enough to just have a Christian name yet – probably has the most difficult task, given the recent revolving doors at Five.

But at least the former editor of the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?, also responsible for Nigella Express and relaunching Crimewatch, is coming in on a rising tide. Five's ratings are on the up, thanks to the arrival of Neighbours and Natasha Kaplinsky to front the news – both pinched at vast expense from the BBC.