TV's free spirit may be lured to world of football

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The Independent Online
How are you going to survive? That was one of the more pointed questions propelled at Channel 4's cigar-chomping, football-crazy chief executive Michael Grade last Thursday morning when he took a five-minute ride from his station's Victoria headquarters to the House of Commons to be cross-examined by a select committee on the future of broadcasting.

The question was posed by Jerry Hayes MP, whose own survival prospects at the next election have hardly been heightened by recent events.

Mr Grade responded by calmly guiding members of the National Heritage Committee through a written submission outlining Channel 4's forecasts of its audience share and advertising revenues to 2002.

He did not let on that he will be bowing out of Channel 4 - and broadcasting - before the end of this year and, rumour has it, taking up the post of the chief executive of the Premier League.

This bombshell was dropped late yesterday afternoon in a brief written statement issued by the company's chairman, Sir Michael Bishop. He said: "Michael Grade has told me he wishes to leave the television industry and pursue his other business interests." He did not indicate what those interests might be.

For once, Mr Grade was shunning the limelight. London's media village was alive with speculation last night that Mr Grade (a Charlton Athletic fanatic) plans to become chief executive of the Premier League when Rick Parry leaves that post to join Liverpool at the end of the season.

The Premier League confirmed it had set up a recruitment panel for the post of chief executive and a number of applications had been received.

A spokesman declined to comment on speculation linking Mr Grade with the post, saying: "Our recruitment process is ongoing and confidential."

Mr Grade is currently non-executive chairman of video distribution company VCI, which last year expressed an interest in acquiring Manchester United.

No one doubts Mr Grade will continue to flourish. He once proclaimed: "I'm always a free and independent spirit. If I'm not appreciated, I can always go off. There's lots of ways I can earn a living."

He has always been too free a spirit, many suspect, to become director- general of the BBC, a post he is believed to have coveted. Director of programmes was the highest he climbed in the corporation's hierarchy.

Lord (Lew) Grade, his uncle, has described him as "a very, very rare piece of material", with an enormous creative ability and a great business sense.

Mr Grade can point to success on both these fronts in his eight-year stewardship of Channel 4, which has done so well in terms of audience share and airtime sales since breaking free from ITV that he was soon lobbying to get the Government's funding formula for the two ITV stations scrapped.

Last summer the Government announced the payments Channel 4 was making to ITV as a penalty of its success will be phased out by 1999. But success has raised the spectre of privatisation. Mr Grade has vehemently opposed this option, but the threat remains. John Major is said to favour the move. The sale could net the Treasury pounds 1.5bn. To ward off the threat Channel 4 may now need to find itself another relentless, dogged persuader - if that is what the board of the station still wants.

Making the Grade

`Britain's pornographer-in-chief'

- Right-wing polemicist Paul Johnson on Grade in 1995

`I'm handing on to you a sacred trust. If you screw it up, if you betray it, I'll come back and throttle you.'

- Jeremy Isaacs, Channel 4's first chief executive, handing over the reins of power to Grade in 1988

`Pseudo-Leninist style of the BBC ... a secretive and forbidding place to work.'

- Grade denouncing John Birt in 1992

`If I make a mistake, it's pretty serious. There are questions in the House.'

- On running a national network