Murdoch's bruiser of the box stands down

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The man known alternately as: "the little no-neck bastard"; "the man who saved Rupert Murdoch" and "the most powerful man in sport", shocked the television industry yesterday by bowing out for health reasons.

Sam Chisholm, chief executive and saviour of satellite channel BSkyB, announced that he would be stepping down because of his doctors' concern about his asthma. Rumours circulating in the television industry for some time suggest that Mr Chisholm, 57, is more seriously ill than is being admitted publicly.

The former Sky chief, whose salary and share options package of pounds 9m last year made him the highest paid executive in the United Kingdom, is credited with turning around Rupert Murdoch's satellite television operation to the point where his power and importance threatened that of Mr Murdoch.

Sky Television, as it was then, was losing more than pounds 14m a week when Mr Chisholm joined from the Australian Channel 9 in 1990, and its massive debts were threatening to bring down Mr Murdoch's whole media empire. The company has since floated on the stock exchange and is now worth pounds 10bn; it made over a pounds 315m profit last year and is acknowledged as the most successful pay-TV venture in the world.

Mr Chisholm cultivated an image as an earthy antipodean whose management style was based on Genghis Khan. His squat frame and bruiser's demeanour were used to great effect when he clashed noisily with Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the Sun noted for his own temper. The two tried unsuccessfully to run BSkyB together. Mr MacKenzie lost the battle and resigned.

"He [Chisholm] dominated Sky's culture from the top to the bottom," said one former employee yesterday. "It will be interesting to see if they can keep up the standard."

Mr Murdoch said yesterday: "Sam Chisholm is unquestionably one of the best executives I have ever worked with. I'm really sorry he has to step down."

Mr Chisholm will be replaced by Mark Booth, chief operating officer at the Japanese joint venture broadcaster JSkyB. It had been expected that he would be replaced by Elisabeth Murdoch, Mr Murdoch's daughter and director of programming at BSkyB. Mr Chisholm is known to have clashed with Ms Murdoch this year when he instituted a programming review while she was on maternity leave. It is believed that Mr Murdoch ordered Mr Chisholm to suspend the review until she returned to work.

For all his aggression Mr Chisholm earned the respect, if not the affection, of his employees at Sky. "He pushed me harder than I have ever been pushed," said one yesterday. "And it made me better."

For Mr Chisholm, who made his name with Kerry Packer, the other Australian media mogul, and his "cricket circus" in the Seventies, the formula for Sky's success has been simple. Every important sport, from the Premier League to cricket and Rugby, has been bought up at a cost of more than pounds 1bn in order to force sports fans to buy dishes and subscribe to the channel.

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