Sarah Sands: Television has shrivelled, and lost its big man

Our columnist laments the departure from ITV of Michael Grade
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I last saw Michael Grade at a media dinner a couple of weeks ago, where he captured the table's attention by using his BlackBerry to commentate on the dramatic swings of fortune in the Chelsea vs Liverpool match. This was the game that ITV was broadcasting to the kind of huge audience Grade had in mind when he joined ITV. But he must have known then that the show was over.

Less than three years ago, Grade's defection from the BBC to ITV was a big story – an old-fashioned epic of mogul power that saw a studio boss going in as combined chairman and chief executive to call all the shots at ITV. How glamorous!

There is an old photo of him sharing a big cigar with his uncles Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont. Lew Grade was one of the founders of ITV, the man said to have described it as a "licence to print money". Delfont was one of the great theatre impresarios. The picture could hang in any Broadway or West End restaurant. Here are the entertainment fellas!

How dour, by contrast, seemed Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, who shrugged irritably at losing his chairman during a pivotal moment for the organisation. But Grade was not a corporate man; he was an impresario. He had sniffed the wind and walked away. He did not much care for an endlessly accountable, compliance-obsessed BBC Trust. He wanted the freedom to gamble on a hunch. He was interested in programmes, not structure.

Grade's early departure from ITV does not attract the same excitement. He pitched up with his show-business instincts, his big ideas and his bonhomie to find the commercial giant had become a harpooned whale. Grade could talk all he liked about talent and optimism: with leaking advertising revenues and restless shareholders, there was no money to spend.

The creative people championed by Grade moved on. An actor recently listed for me those who could offer the work and those who could not. Provincial theatres were on their way out, he said. ITV was a graveyard.

So Grade came in as an old-style entertainment chief, but shareholders in ITV haven't found much entertainment. They watched the share price plummet and questioned the purpose of Grade's big personality and bigger salary. Now they will separate the titles of chief executive and chairman, cutting the office holders down to size.

This is not the era of talent, but of cost-cutters and regulators. Leadership has a new meaning in the recession. Talented mavericks start to look like pains in the ass when there is no money around. The forecasts are all about retrenchment rather than growth. Studios are shutting down. Actors and presenters are being offered "take it or leave it" deals that see them engaged on fractions of their previous rates. Channel 4 bosses are taking substantial cuts in their salaries. Shareholders want a lean and hungrier look.

I am sorry to see Michael Grade go, because it marks the end of an age and possibly of an industry. Many of our dreams disappear along with him. He's still big – it is television that got small.

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British Reader's Digest