Race reopens for top job at C4

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The Independent Online
The contest to succeed Michael Grade as chief executive of Channel 4 was thrown into disarray last night when television executives said they were putting off their decision for several weeks.

The appointment was expected at a board meeting on Monday, but Channel 4 have now said the selection process has not been completed and a recommendation cannot yet be given. The station issued a short statement last night saying a decision will be made by the time of the next scheduled board meeting on 19 May, when an announcement will be made.

Until last night, the contest for one of the most prestigious jobs in British television had been viewed as a steady two-horse race between one of the BBC's top television executives, Michael Jackson, and Channel 4's director of programmes, John Willis. However, senior industry figures have suggested that Greg Dyke, the former head of LWT, may also be in the running.

One of the reasons for the delay in announcing a replacement could be a fear among Channel 4 executives that the channel will be privatised after the general election. When rumours first surfaced that the Conservatives might be planning another privatisation there was barely a whisper of complaint from the public or from other broadcasters. Industry observers believe that an incoming government may view the privatisation as an easy way - and one which will not attract adverse reaction - to raise revenue for hospital beds .

If politicians of either party do have privatisation on their agenda, Channel 4 executives may decide they will need a hard-headed businessman rather than a creative media-type at the helm. "They are probably going to want someone who can cut it in the real commercial world," said one observer.

Greg Dyke is thought to be Grade's choice for his successor, and there are rumours that he is looking for a high-profile challenge which will establish his artistic credentials and rid him forever of the"downmarket" image which has dogged him since his time at LWT.

Mr Dyke is at present heading the television arm of the Pearson group, which is mainly concerned with investment in companies such as Channel 5 and BSkyB.

But the other challengers in the race still have their supporters. If the youthful Mr Jackson gets the job, it will be hard for Mr Willis to stick around at the station he has been with since its inception. Colleagues expect him to quit if he is passed over for the post. He may even cross over to the BBC, and many of Mr Jackson's colleagues at the Beeb are bracing themselves for that eventuality, as he has described the Channel 4 chief- executive post as the best job in British broadcasting.

John Willis, who has been described by Channel 5's chief executive, David Elstein, as the "unsung hero" of Channel 4, would hate to lose out to Mr Jackson, a younger man whom he once branded a "copycat criminal". That was when Mr Jackson was controller of BBC2 and, allegedly, stealing ideas from Channel 4. Mr Jackson hit back at that time, describing Channel 4 as a "lager channel" and arguing that a "sapping of originality" had resulted from a "pursuit of demographics - in particular, young, lager-drinking, upwardly-mobile men". Mr Jackson pointed to The Girlie Show as an example of "putting packaging before programming, treating the audience simply as categories of consumers".

Michael Grade performed virtually the same role that Mr Jackson performs at the Beeb, before he took over at Channel 4 in 1987. Because of his populist and flamboyant image, Mr Grade's appointment unnerved many at Channel 4. Yet he quickly established himself as the Face of Four, and many Channel 4 staffers were devastated when he announced on 27 January that he would quit in July.

The horror which originally greeted Michael Grade's move to Channel 4 would repeat itself if the board opted this time for his old LWT chum Greg Dyke. Mr Jackson has more art-cred, and few will be outraged if he is named as Channel 4's new boss.

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