After 13 years with the BBC – and after 14 months of being an Aunt Sally figure for critics of an organisation that hankers to be regarded as dear old Auntie – Jonathan Ross has suddenly quit the Corporation.
The presenter's decision not to renew his contract, which runs out in six months' time, took the broadcasting industry by surprise yesterday. Many senior BBC executives will have received the news with relief, given that Ross, with a fruity vocabulary and a contract that pays £18m over three years, had become an obvious target for those who see the organisation as profligate and characterised by falling editorial standards.
The presenter, who considered his position over the past fortnight, is thought to have tired of the attacks that his broadcasting style attracted, particularly from right-wing commentators. The BBC has shared that criticism and senior executives accepted Ross's decision. He is also understood to have wanted new challenges in his career.
Alan Yentob, the BBC's creative director, took the phone call. "He has taken the initiative," said Yentob. "I want him to feel rehabilitated himself. Everyone here thinks he's a considerable talent and it's not the end of Jonathan Ross's career by a long chalk. But it's the end of an era and it has been a difficult year. Maybe that break will allow him to come back with confidence and not feel that he's under the microscope all the time."
Ross, in spite and because of the controversy he attracts, represents a great opportunity for the BBC's commercial rivals, and his departure from the Corporation's schedules is a blow both to its flagship channel BBC One and to Radio 2, its most listened-to network.
His decision comes at a time when BBC One, hamstrung by criticism that the Corporation is overly competitive, has been hard-pressed to match the weekend audiences of ITV1, where Simon Cowell shows such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent have revitalised the commercial channel. Peter Fincham, ITV's director of television, worked with Ross at the BBC and is an admirer of his presenting abilities.
ITV said last night that it had no intention of offering Ross an exclusive contract, but hinted that there could be other opportunities for him. "If the right show came along and he was right for it then certainly we would look at it," said a spokesman, noting that Ross already hosts ITV's coverage of the British Comedy Awards.
Yet Ross, 49, is not believed to have had an alternative offer on the table when he issued his statement yesterday. "Over the last two weeks I have decided not to renegotiate when my current contract comes to an end. I would like to make it perfectly clear that no negotiations ever took place and that my decision is not financially motivated," he said. "I signed my current contract with the BBC having turned down more lucrative offers from other channels because it was where I wanted to be and – as I have said before – would happily have stayed there for any fee they cared to offer, but there were other considerations."
A possible move to ITV might be hampered by the fact that the broadcaster has commissioned Paul O'Grady to present a Friday night chat show designed to be an early evening competitor to Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, which has run for eight years and is in its 17th series. This may provide an opening for Channel 4, the network on which Ross made his presenting debut as host of The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross in 1987. Industry sources said last night that Channel 4 had already contacted Ross's agent Addison Cresswell. A spokesman for the channel admitted that it was "very keen" on Ross, who recently appeared on its show The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. "He's a great broadcaster. We definitely might be interested, the question is what he would do."
Ross's departure is also a disappointment for Radio 2, coming soon after the retirement of breakfast show presenter Terry Wogan and days ahead of the debut of his replacement, Chris Evans.
Sources close to Ross stressed that he had not quit over money. Although a single meeting had taken place before Christmas to discuss his contract, no new deal had been put forward.
Ross's departure from the BBC will be claimed as a victory by the Daily Mail, which has campaigned for him to be sacked since he and the former Radio 2 presenter Russell Brand recorded obscene messages on the telephone answering machine of the actor Andrew Sachs in October 2008.
It is said that Ross, who has based his style partly on that of David Letterman, is admired by American networks, which have in recent years made stars of a string of British presenters including Cowell, Piers Morgan and Anne Robinson. But although Ross created difficulties for the BBC, his name will be so attractive to the Corporation's rivals that his future will surely remain in Britain.
After Jonathan... possible successors
Chat Show: Graham Norton
Recently re-signed with the BBC, taking a £500,000 pay cut but still earning £4m over two years, Norton, like Ross, cut his chat show teeth at Channel 4. Currently hosting a comedy talk show on BBC Two, it would be the simplest and best value option for the BBC to give him Ross's slot on the flagship channel.
Film Show: Mark Kermode
Widely respected film critic and co-presenter of BBC Two's The Culture Show, he frequently appears on the BBC's news channel and reviews movies for Radio 5 Live.
Radio Show: Mark Lamarr
Already a fixture on Radio 2, and a former host of Never Mind The Buzzcocks, he doesn't have the same high profile as Ross, but is less prone to gaffes.