Steve Clarke meets a TV baron with a streetwise mind and the common touch.
1947: Born London. Education: Hayes Grammar School, York University (mature student), degree in politics. "I used to be like a lot of people who hadn't been to university ... You wonder if you are somehow less clever than those who have."
1977: Joined London Weekend Television as reporter on the London Programme.
1978: Producer on Weekend World.
1979: Deputy editor, The London Programme.
1981: Created and edited The Six O'Clock Show.
1983: Editor in chief, TV-am.
1984-87: Director of programmes, Television South.
1987-1990: Director of programmes, LWT. Also chairman of ITV Sport, deputy managing director of LWT.
1990: Managing director, LWT. "LWT will be long forgotten if in the year 2005 we're only the holder of the weekend franchise. We must be part of what's coming."
On 14 October last year, the elite brigade of Britain's television industry, and those desperate to join it, gathered at London's Savoy Hotel to toast the retirement of ITN chairman Sir David Nicholas. Those present included David Frost, Michael Grade, Sir Robin Day, Richard Branson and Sir Alastair Burnet.
But with under two days to go until the announcement of the Channel 3 franchise winners and losers that would determine the future of ITV, few of the party goers were in any mood for celebration. There was, however, one exception. In a corner at one end of the room, oddly detached from the rest of the proceedings, a grinning, bald man was positively euphoroic. And it wasn't just the champagne. Greg Dyke, MD of London Weekend Television, looked like a man who knew he couldn't lose.
Thirty-six hours later, Dyke's confidence was confirmed as he and his colleagues began celebrating their winning double in the ITV franchise auction. Not only had LWT held on to its licence to broadcast with a ridiculously low bid of £7.6 million (the opposition, London Independent Broadcasting, offered over four times as much but failed the quality test), but Sunrise Television, in which LWT holds a 20% stake, had ousted TV-am.
For Dyke, Sunrise's success was particularly sweet. Eight years earlier he had pulled TV-am back from financial ruin only to leave the breakfast station a year later following a row over programme budgets. Now 44, Dyke had played a part in the undoing of TV-am and Bruce Gyngell, the company's controversial managing director, and established himself as one of the three most powerful men in British commercial television alongside Carlton's Michael Green and Central Television's Leslie Hill.
"The day after TV-am lost I received about 40 letters from ex TV-am staff saying, "You got the bastard"," he says. "But I don't feel that way at all. I long ago overcame any hostility I had towards Bruce and TV-am." That may be so but Dyke has every reason to be magnanimous as he ponders the future from his 14th floor office on London's South Bank with its spectacular views of the metropolis.
For one thing, his career didn't reach lift off until he joined LWT shortly after his 30th birthday. But more importantly, Dyke has, in his words, "taken LWT out of the pack and made it the most profitable ITV company as a percentage of turnover or ad revenue". While other television stations drifted uncertainly towards last year's franchise auction, Dyke helped to provide LWT with a vision that should, barring mishaps, guarantee it a place at the pinnacle of British television come the year 2000.
Once notorious for its restrictive practices and other abuses of union power, nowadays LWT is an efficiently run operation. "Greg has revolutionised the company," says Andy Allan, programme controller at Central. Its staff complain about working longer hours for less money but they know that LWT has a future, while at the same time worrying if their own jobs will be the next to go.
Since Dyke took over, staff numbers have been ruthlessly cut by almost half, and LWT has been broken up into smaller units as part of its pre-franchise restructuring. The company's bleak, windswept HQ has been grandly renamed The London Television Centre to emphasise that it is more than just another ITV broadcaster. The location may not be Burbank but Dyke's dream of building a Hollywood-style production centre within walking distance of Waterloo is taking shape.
Under Dyke's leadership LWT has made a promising start towards successfully marketing its studios and offices to other programme makers. And as well as housing Sunrise and a new television news service for London, Dyke's masterplan involves Carlton, which dislodged Thames Television in the auction, also operating from LWT's South Bank building. Close ties with Meridian, the victor for the south coast region which toppled Television South, are also planned.
That LWT retained its licence with such an audaciously low bid should ensure its future profitability. Despite heavy debts, which the company has already begun to pay off, and expensive programme investment, analysts predict pre-tax profits of at least £25 million in the first year of the new franchise period. This financial clout also puts LWT, and Dyke, in a unique position to influence the new ITV network when it begins transmissions next January.
For an empire builder and TV baron, Dyke hardly looks, or sounds, the part, and a story once told endlessly around the studios of LWT is that he was once mistaken for his own chauffeur. "He's an aggressive little fellow but don't be taken in by his voice. He's actually a very, very clever guy," says an admirer. "He's a furry little figure with an abrasive charm", is another assessment. His physical similarity to Roland Rat, the hairy rodent puppet who enabled him to build and audience at TV-am by persuading children to tune in, is often remarked upon. A short, stocky man who keeps in shape with regular Friday lunchtime five-aside soccer sessions, Dyke is more at home on the terraces than in the stalls at Covent Garden. His accent and quickfire delivery are pure Petticoat Lane barrow boy.
That he is an outsider and has never bothered to modify his approach to fit in with the Oxbridge educated media mafia that still dominates British broadcasting, may be a key factor in his success. "There is no secret about Greg. What you see is what you get," says David Cox, a former head of current affairs at LWT. "When he came to television he was already formed. He'd worked in race relations, he'd been a politician, and he had no desire to be part of the television culture. He could see what needed doing and he had the bottle to do it."
Not one of nature's instinctive diplomats, Dyke has never, until recently, been afraid to speak his mind, a trait which in the past has landed him in trouble after journalists have reported his remarks. "I say too many things that upset too many people. I sometimes say things that I wish I hadn't said," he confesses.
Four years ago he infuriated the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) when, as LWT's programme controller, he attempted to scupper ITV's traditional Sunday evening "God-slot" by moving it out of peak viewing time and into a Sunday lunchtime slot. Dyke is still unrepentant. "I think it is deeply ludicrous that the two main channels are supposed to play religion against each other so that we can all get some sort of religious input. It is deeply illiberal. It really annoys me.
"Channel 4, which shows The Cosby Show at the same time, and BSkyB, which schedules The Simpsons against the God slot, have been able to build up audiences at our expense because of some 1950s view of religion."
The incident confirmed the view of those IBA officials who had dismissed him as a crude populist who would stop at nothing to win large audiences. The truth, however, is more complicated; ITV's ratings resurgence of the past two years owes a lot to Dyke's determination to move ITV's programming more up-market, typified by shows such as London's Burning and Poirot which can attract viewers from all social classes.
As LWT's programme supremo and chairman of ITV Sport (a post he still occupies), Dyke killed off wrestling because its audience profile was too down-market. But be undoubtedly has the common touch and an instinctive grasp of popular television. "He has a streetwise mind," opines Andy Allan. "Greg is in touch with his customer."
He grew up in the faceless West London suburb of Hayes, where as the son of an insurance salesman, he attended the local grammar school after scraping through his 11-plus. Much of his formative years were spent wondering what to do with his life. His first job, which lasted three months, was as a management trainee with Marks and Spencer. He then tried local papers: the Hillingdon Mirror and the Slough Evening Mail. Later, as a mature student, he managed to get into York University with one A level - maths. "I used to be like a lot of people who hadn't been to university," he has said. "I spent a lot of time thinking: why did I miss out? You wonder if you are somehow less clever than those who have."
Dyke read politics at York and later stood as a GLC Labour councillor in Putney where he turned a safe Labour majority of 3,000 into a safe Tory majority of 7,000. He is still a Labour supporter although his support has begun to wane: "I deeply, deeply resent what Thatcher did to the television industry ... She didn't even want to understand the issues."
Being offered a job on The London Programme (he had applied to be a researcher on Weekend World, the cerebral political series) in 1977 was ultimately to lead to creating his own programme at LWT, The Six O'Clock Show, an anarchic That's Life-style show. And the success of the programme helped Dyke land the TV-am job. But, according to David Cox, Dyke, who was then well placed to advance his career at LWT, had decided to leave LWT before the TV-am offer came because Cox refused to give him a company car. "That, I think, shows a certain strength of character. He didn't care if he was ruining his chances at LWT when he said he would leave because he couldn't have a car."
Within weeks Dyke's tabloid approach had built an audience of 1.6 million viewers at TV-am. Aitken hired Dyke for a salary of £40,000 with a £20,000 bonus once ratings began to climb. Dyke improved his financial situation still further at TV-am when he made 30 times his original investment after he bought into the company when it was re-financed. "I am not very interested in money," he claims. "I made a couple of hundred grand at TV-am. That's what you really want in life.
"Money has never been a significant driving factor in my life. I've always been very conscious that my kids understand about a life that isn't like ours. I come from an ordinary lower middle-class background and Sue (his partner) comes from a poor working-class family. I think we've made every effort in our lives not to lose those roots." He adds: "I never want to become part of the British upper class. I don't enjoy what they do or what they are ... We don't live expensively although I live in a nice house (in Twickenham). The kids go to state schools. Therefore I don't need large sums of money. What money does give you is freedom. It's the ability to say, "Stuff you, I'm off", if I hated coming in here every day.
So what motivates him? "Fun and finding things that are difficult that you can then achieve. But they've got to be fairly short-term 'cos I'm a short-term player." Dyke is notorious for his low boredom threshold. "I've got the concentration level of a peanut," he confesses. When Dyke sat on the ITV network programme controllers' group, colleagues sometimes found he was not always a good listener and that his approach was impulsive.
On his appointment as LWT's designate MD in 1989, Dyke was sent to Harvard Business School for a three-month course. "Harvard taught him the meaning of the word competition," says a LWT board member.
"Harvard confirmed much of what I think I am," Dyke maintains. "You don't have to understand discounted cash flow to run an organisation. But you've got to distinguish between management and leadership. Companies need leading. You need to go places. My problem here at times is that I'm trying to go too fast without getting across to enough people what I'm on about. That's a fault in me. In the end people want to work in a company where they know where it's going."
Dyke is a new disciple of Tom Peters, the American management guru, who believes that these crazy times need crazy leaders. "You gotta have fun. Take risks, make mistakes, never be boring," Dyke is fond of saying.
Now that the franchise is in the bag, Dyke has turned his restless mind to the next decade - and beyond. He predicts dramatic changes in television for the years ahead with dozens of channels competing for viewers and a fragmented audience. To survive LWT must continue to adapt and diversify. "LWT will be long forgotten if in the year 2005 we're only the holder of the weekend franchise," he says. "We must become part of what's coming." A colleague predicts: "He'll surprise us by some of the things he wants to take LWT into."
The danger for Dyke is that his demand for excitement and his determination to stay ahead of his rivals may lead him to eventually overplay his hand at LWT. For the moment, though, the world is his: "Except for the fact that my father died last year, at 44 I feel happier than at any time of my life ... There's no pressure from outside to prove anything to anybody. That gives you an inner strength to allow you to be much more what you wanna be."
Steve Clarke is a freelance journalist.