ITV in search for new boss as Grade exits early

Executive chairman to step down after conclusion of regulatory reviews
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The Independent Online

Michael Grade is to step down early as boss of ITV in a move that surprised the media industry yesterday. The group is now gearing up to find a replacement before the end of the year, with Mr Grade becoming non-executive chairman.

ITV said Mr Grade had offered to step aside after three years in the job, though media analysts pointed out that he had in 2008 signed a contract extension that should have meant him staying on until next year.

In an email to staff, Mr Grade said his three major objectives on joining ITV had been to improve the network's performance, build up the management team and push for less onerous regulation of the broadcaster.

"All three of those things are now in place or under way and it is the perfect time for me to move to the non-executive chairman role at the end of this year, as originally envisaged," he said.

Lorna Tilbian, head of media research at Numis, said: "He wanted an extra year to develop programming, but has been hit by the economic downturn. With the regulation issues coming up, it seems a natural time to go."

Mr Grade said the next few months were critical to the future of ITV, "with two crucially important regulatory reviews under way and an economic outlook that presents the business with unprecedented challenges."

ITV's balance sheet has been decimated by the credit crunch, with the deterioration of the advertising markets damaging the entire media sector. The broadcaster announced yesterday that it is to sell its SDN digital division, and that it has raised £58m in a covenant-free loan. It added there were "no current plans for a rights issue".

ITV's board will now launch a formal search for a chief executive. It hopes the new boss will be appointed after the findings of the contract rights renewal (CRR) regulatory review are published later this year, and "no later than the end of 2009".

Speculation was rife over potential candidates yesterday, with the group saying it would look internally and externally. Front-runners within the business include the chief operating officer, John Cresswell, and Rupert Howell, managing director of ITV's brand and commercial divisions. The director of television, Peter Fincham, and Carolyn Fairbairn, director of group development and strategy, were also mooted.

Analysts said external candidates would include "all the usual suspects," such as Michael Jackson, the former head of Channel 4, and the present incumbent, Andy Duncan. Dawn Airey, who left ITV to join Five as chief executive, and Tony Ball, the former chief executive of BSkyB, were also backed.

"The City will be after a big name with a good understanding of brands and new media, that's what ITV needs to concentrate on," said one insider at a rival broadcaster. "It is a tough ask, though, especially as Grade will be in the background as chairman, so the appointment may well be internal."