Why I'm the man for my job
The ITV chief Charles Allen keeps hearing that Greg Dyke's after his post. But the former BBC man isn't needed, he tells Ian Burrell
Tuesday 11 May 2004
There haughty interviewees who seek copy approval, and those who claim to be so busy they can spare only 20 minutes on the phone. Charles Allen is neither: the chief executive of ITV offers to "come to you". When he arrives at The Independent, leaving his chauffeur waiting in the car outside, he says how nice it is to get out of his offices on the south bank of the Thames.
It has been said of Allen that he is anxious to be loved by everybody, but also that he is prepared to put the knife in if you stand in his way. These contrasting qualities of conciliator and combatant have ensured that "survivor" is another epithet that can be applied to the short, softly-spoken Scotsman. Well, for now at least.
Allen, 47, emerged from a leading role in the ITV Digital débâcle to land the top job in British commercial television. Yet he continues to be described as "under pressure" in his post, reportedly the subject of continuing shareholder discontent and vulnerable to the availability in the job market of his old adversary Greg Dyke.
It's a bit unfortunate, considering that 100 days after Allen took over as the head of the newly-consolidated ITV, Britain's biggest commercial network is in its best shape for years. Audience share is increasing, I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! has been the hit show of the year, and Michael Parkinson has swapped sides - all as the BBC has been paralysed by Hutton.
So it is no surprise that Allen is not about to give up his position lightly. Asked to assess the threat of a vengeful Dyke (who was running London Weekend Television when it was consumed by Allen's Granada), the ITV chief shows his steelier side and says that the former BBC director general isn't cut out for the job. He agrees that Dyke is "a very good creative director," but adds: "We have fantastic creative people. This is not about a creative deficit at ITV. I don't try to do the creative jobs, my style is to let them get on and do their jobs well."
Allen maintains that it is a requirement of the head of ITV to negotiate with business, the regulator Ofcom and government ministers, something that wouldn't suit Dyke. "We are an organisation that makes £220m profit. Before we get to that, it costs us £475m in licence and regulatory costs. No company in the world pays that level of super tax. I would have thought it would be the last thing on Greg's agenda to deal with regulators and government."
The rumour that Dyke might be a future ITV chief executive are based on a meeting he had last month with the ITV chairman Sir Peter Burt. "There is no substance to any of that," Allen concludes.
He expresses surprise at the suggestion that Dyke might hold a grudge over the Granada takeover of LWT. "It was a deal that was driven by shareholders, that was part of the consolidation process. From my perspective, there's no angst there at all."
Neither, Allen says, does he have any antipathy towards the BBC, considered to be ITV's biggest broadcasting rival. "Our focus is much more about competing with commercial rivals rather than competing with the BBC. My vision would also see us collaborating more with the BBC rather than head-to-head competition," he says.
He cites the jointly run 360 Media studios in Manchester as an example of the BBC and ITV working together. "There are many things we can do. We will be very supportive of the BBC continuing to have its licence fee as the basis of funding," he says.
But his compliments include what seems to be another swipe at Dyke. "It's in everybody's interests to have a strong BBC. Ironically, what has happened in the past few years under more commercial leadership is that people are asking the question, 'What role should the BBC play in future?' We should never have that question."
A year ago, the commercial network was so downtrodden that its executives would avoidindustry dinners. But the moulding of ITV into one entity has changed the mindset, Allen says. "The thing that has changed dramatically, beyond what I had hoped in the first 100 days, is the sheer levels of confidence ITV has. That's not arrogant, it's just that ITV has a spring in its step. I now want ITV to be the most creative organisation in the world, and the most commercial. I passionately believe that those visionary objectives are not mutually exclusive."
After school in Hamilton, Allen trained as an accountant with the former British Steel before making his name in the catering and leisure industries. He earns £1m a year in his present post, but claims that reports that he could make a further £21m in four years through share options are greatly exaggerated. Nevertheless, he owns a luxury holiday home in South Africa, which he regularly visits with his partner.
One of the first things Allen did in his new post was to take the "top 100" executives of the newly-merged ITV to the Park Lane Hilton in London for a bonding weekend to create a sense of "one team". As a gesture, Allen handed out Blackberry e-mail phones to improve communications between senior staff, many of whom had previously considered each other as rivals.
He also produced a list of "Seven Tenets" for ITV's major shareholders, which he believes represent the "building blocks" of the group's future. Such common objectives could not have existed under the old ITV, he claims. "We would never have been able to get Michael Parkinson... there would have been sub-committees..."
Crucial to ITV's future will be its digital strategy, which to some observers looks unconvincing. Allen argues that he is creating an ITV "package of channels". He says that ITV3, aimed at the over-35s and to be launched later in the year, is likely to have a "more upmarket and slightly older skew" than its sister channels.
When Allen talks of ITV's output, he keeps coming back to I'm a Celebrity... (which he oddly refers to as Get Me Out of Here, in what some shareholders might hope is a Freudian slip). He claims, though, that ITV programming is "not just about one show", pointing to the popularity of This Morning ("come back strongly, with performances up nearly 20 per cent) and Emmerdale ("fantastic storylines"). The chief executive, a regular theatre-goer, also cites drama as ITV's most important genre. " It is a unique selling point for us," he says.
As Allen prepares to leave, he promises that he will hold down his job for a long while to come. "I came into this industry 12 years ago, and my vision was a single ITV at that point in time," he says. "One hundred days ago, for me, was the start of the journey of ITV rather than the end of 10 acquisition mergers and government Bills. I didn't see that as the end, I saw it as the beginning."
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