In a further blow to ITV chairman Michael Grade’s turnaround plan for the struggling broadcaster, Airey – previously managing director of ITV Global Content and part of Grade’s executive board – is returning to Five as chairman and chief executive (she’ll also join the management committee of parent RTL). Since it also emerged today that ITV is facing a £4m fine from Ofcom for the phone-in scandal, and has finally bowed to the inevitable and ditched the subscription model at Friends Reunited, it’s probably safe to assume that Grade has had better Tuesdays...
As you’d expect, he’s been trying to make the best of things, handing over Airey’s responsibilities to her deputy Lee Bartlett and promising to oversee the transition personally. ‘We have assembled a strong team to lead our global content business and they will now report to Lee,’ he said today. ‘I will spend more of my time in the content business to ensure that the momentum is maintained.’ Still, her sudden defection must have come as a bit of shock - it was only two months ago that he promoted her to the executive board, along with commercial head Rupert Howell, and she’d apparently been given a £200m war chest to seek acquisitions.
But if you think he was surprised, spare a thought for current Five CEO Jane Lighting and chairman Remy Sautter. Having taken over from Airey in 2003 when she went to BSkyB, Lighting now appears to have been summarily ousted in favour of her predecessor. And according to some reports, this was pretty much the first she heard about it. Clearly she’s paying the price for Five’s declining market share, despite recent successes like US import CSI and the recruitment of Natasha Kaplinsky to read the news (albeit briefly).
The rumours are already flying about the reasons for Airey’s sudden departure. Some analysts are suggesting that RTL, which has been linked with a bid for BSKyB’s stake in ITV, have hired her because they want to bid for ITV as a whole – although others think they can’t afford it. And then there’s the recent hire of Peter Fincham from the BBC as director of television – although we’ve seen no suggestion this has anything to do with it.
Either way, losing a member of his senior team is just the kind of headache Grade doesn’t need as he looks to resuscitate ITV’s moribund share price. Although until BSkyB finally sells it stake (assuming it ever does), it’s likely to remain in the doldrums for a while yet, whatever he does..