Profile: Greg Dyke, programmer with a conscience: LWT's effervescent chief executive tells William Kay why he fears Granada's hostile bid

William Kay
Sunday 12 December 1993 00:02

'WE'VE GOT Julian Clary in one studio, Cilla Black in another. It's the ambience, the buzz.' It's Greg Dyke getting carried away, as ever, with showbiz glitter as he explains the wonders of London Weekend Television.

When Michael Grade wanted to run a pilot last week of Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, carrot- topped Chris Evans's hush-hush new Saturday night show for Channel 4, there was only one studio complex worth considering.

It had to be the South Bank Television Centre, headquarters of LWT (Holdings) and GMTV as well as the main production base for Carlton Television and Hat Trick Productions, the independent firm that makes hits such as Drop the Dead Donkey and Have I Got News For You.

'All you need to know about ITV is programmes, programmes, programmes,' the diminutive Dyke enthuses. 'We're making programmes seven days a week,

but you need the broadcast franchise to develop them. It's a business based on stars; and the stars want to be here because it's a broadcast business.'

He comes across as much softer than he did in the days, 10 years ago, when he was the wiry, fiery hatchet man who introduced Roland Rat, bingo numbers and horoscopes to the ailing TV-am breakfast station.

From the neck up, Dyke looks like the concerned social worker he once was and still aspires to be. From from the collar down, the grey business suit takes over. The two sides are in constant friction.

Last week's pounds 600m takeover bid by Granada for LWT, holder of the London weekend TV franchise, extracted the maximum ambivalence from Dyke, a self- confessed Sixties liberal whose stake in the company is worth pounds 8.4m.

'I find the takeover process odd,' he says in the puzzled tones of someone experiencing the predator's breath on his throat for the first time. 'It seems to me strange that people can build up an extremely successful company to add enormous shareholder value in a comparatively short period of time, then find it could be taken away and destroyed.'

However, as he readily admits, it is hard for him to complain. That same system has turned about 25 of LWT's top management into millionaires.

Nevertheless, Dyke is ever one to reach out for the moral high ground. He even contrived to make a moral issue out of BSkyB snaffling the rights to Premier League football from the ITV companies, resenting the fact that devoted football fans without a satellite dish would no longer be able to see live matches. The impact on ITV advertising revenues was relegated to a footnote.

So it is inevitable that he sees Granada's aggression in ethical terms.

'What will upset me more than anything,' he says, 'is if someone else bought this company and destroyed some of the things we have put into it, including the welfare function. We have our own doctor, surgery, dentist. The week after next, we are having a big staff children's Christmas party, with dodgems and trains. Some of our people work horrible hours. They deserve a bit of fun. And whenever anyone in the company has a baby, we send them flowers. I feel it is something the company should mark.'

In the isolated little residential community on the wedge of land between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges, LWT is busy. And Dyke is proud of the company's record on sexual and racial equality.

'We are all bottom-line people,' he asserts. 'But I believe you can achieve good bottom-line results while still having a good company. That is not the feeling you get going into the Granada studios in Manchester.'

Dyke was born in Hayes, west London, in 1947, the son of an insurance salesman. After grammar school, he endured three months' training at Marks & Spencer before breaking into local journalism.

But in his mid-20s, he decided to swap the reporter's notebook for a mature student's pad at York University.

'I used to be like a lot of people who hadn't been to university,' he muses. 'You wonder if you are somehow less clever than those who have.'

Dyke's mid-Seventies redbrick politics degree gave him the necessary credibility to become a social worker and stand for Labour in elections to the old Greater London Council.

He was rated ''too London' when he applied to be a researcher on Weekend World, LWT's prestige Sunday lunchtime showcase. Instead, he was shunted into The London Programme. His bustling energy led to one promotion after another: producer of Weekend World; deputy editor on The London Programme. Then, in 1981, he was given his head with his own creation, The Six o'Clock Show - a lively magazine fronted by Janet Street-Porter and Danny Baker.

Dyke found he could manage teams of people, get the best out of them and make the ideas flow.

'TV programme teams are wonderfully efficient,' he says. 'There are 20 people, and everyone's involved and knows what the goal is. That seems to me a brilliant way of running an organisation.'

Two years later, he was summoned to the crisis-hit TV-am, where he noticed that the viewing figures rose at half-term. Parents were letting their kids choose the channel - a custom that Channel 4 has since seized on with The Big Breakfast. Dyke's response was Roland Rat, the gormless puppet that signalled a downward lurch from TV-am's initial heavyweight team of Angela Rippon, Anna Ford, Peter Jay and Robert Kee.

Dyke was later elbowed out by the eccentric Bruce Gyngell. But after a spell at TVS he was back in town as director of programmes at LWT.

Sir Christopher Bland, the group's chairman, earmarked Dyke as chief executive after giving him three months' polishing at Harvard.

'It was terrifying,' Dyke admits. 'But it taught me that leadership was more important than management. And I learned that 10-year plans don't work because the macroeconomics always drives them off course. You can't predict what's going to happen.'

Experience has also taught Dyke that trade unions are not all his Labour party pals used to believe them to be.

'I think the trade union movement has for many years worked against the better interests of people at the bottom end of company,' he now argues, 'because certainly in the television business it has prevented them from really using their skills and their talents.'

He had no inhibitions about slashing LWT's staff when the old union restrictions collapsed, tempering his butchery with lavish redundancy payments.

'Over four years, we have made 690 redundant and paid out around pounds 30m, which is less than last year's profits,' he explains. 'To completely restructure your business for less than a year's profits is a good deal. I have no problem with that.'

Part of that change was to make production a profit centre; it now earns pounds 11m a year renting out studios for everything from Jonathan Ross shows to sales conferences.

Such innovations have naturally led Dyke to the conviction that LWT is a bit special. 'This is a rather stranger franchise to run than most of them,' he claims, 'because of competition. There have always been two London companies, and London Weekend always faces the problem that the BBC plays its most successful shows at the weekend. But if you look at who runs British television - Michael Grade, John Birt, Marcus Plantin - they all came from here. And that's why. You've got to win the peak times.'

Hence Blind Date and Beadle's About. Dyke cannot resist adding: 'It's a much more competitive environment than anything Granada is used to.'

His competitive instincts have sharpened since the Friday before last, when Gerry Robinson phoned to invite Dyke and Bland to his Holland Park home to discuss the bid. It was a brief chat.

As luck had it, last Monday - the day the Granada bid was publicly declared - was also the day of Dyke's last meeting as chairman of the ITV companies' association.

Where his predecessors have celebrated their departure with a solemn little dinner, Dyke had a characteristically flash showbiz bash at LWT, complete with a transvestite magician.

Charles Allen, the chief executive of Granada Television, turned up diffidently and was predictably guyed during the evening by an effervescent Dyke.

'I've always believed that you come into work to have fun, really,' he says. 'If after six months you're not having fun, don't moan, go and do something else.'

That is precisely what Dyke is likely to do if Robinson does not play the game his way.

He is a bankable commodity who could walk into any TV job he chose. Some think he could do worse than to end up running the ITV network.

'After all,' said one industry insider, 'he could still walk round the studios and shake hands with the stars.'

(Photograph omitted)

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