Editor’s blog: Who should run ITV?

The news that the head of HMV, Simon Fox, is heading the list of candidates to become the next boss of ITV has left some cheering. But I’m not so sure I’m equally elated. The schtick is that ITV desperately needs some fresh thinking after the old boy Michael Grade has seen it go down the tubes. The broadcaster has been keen to find someone young and dynamic to embrace the digital age. It bought Friends United for 175m amid general sniggering from those in the know, and is currently struggling to offload it for 15m. There can be no more cock-ups of this nature.

So what they need is a digitally literate bright young thing. Another front-runner is apparently Pascal Cagni, the French head of Apple in Europe. (He’s bound to be well versed in the latest plotline of Coronation Street.) One analyst, quoted in the FT, described the prospect of appointing Cagni as daring and bold. Quite so. But also possibly hugely misguided, with the potential for une grande catastrophe. Most Euro heads of big US tech firms tend to be sales and marketing types, because the innovation all happens over there.

Fox is a retailer and no doubt possessed of considerable talent. We’re good at retail in Britain. But it may be worth recalling what happened when star retailer Andy Hornby was parachuted into HBOS to crank the stuffy bank up with the benefit of his retail expertise. Fox may be a member of the Magic Circle, he may be a turnaround master but he doesn’t have any experience of the sawdust and tinsel of showbiz. He used to shift fridges and washing machines at Comet before he went to HMV.

Sawdust and tinsel, critics and shareholders shout, is precisely what Michael Grade has in abundance – and look where that got the organisation. He may have had Tarbie, Eric and Ernie plus even Arthur Askey as guests at his first wedding, but that was then and his touch was long gone. However, ITV’s board need to be careful. Television – despite the throttling it has received at the hands of new media – is still an odd animal. Sui generis.

The truth is that it requires special skills to be a leader of a creative organisation. ITV needs to find some half-way decent ideas and make programmes from them. That requires imagination. It requires having the courage to chuck out the crappy, formulaic, tawdry rubbish and come up with something new. It’s daft to expect the CEO of ITV to be coming up with ideas for the next X Factor or The Wire, but he or she has to have an intimate understanding of, and ability to work with, those within creative organisations who can. I’m just not sure someone who knows how to shift iPods or tumble driers is the right person. I may be wrong, and Fox and Cagni could be ITV’s saviours – the next Jack Warner or Sam Goldwyn. And if the board goes after someone with a telly track record, the trouble is that nobody with any serious senior management talent in TV wants to go anywhere near the job.

The one thing it would be priceless to discover is what Rupert Murdoch has to say on the matter. He’s a major shareholder via Sky, currently looking at a value which is so far underwater since he bought in that you can hardly see the bubbles. But he also has a good track record in TV of letting those who understand the medium get on and run the show. I wonder who he would choose.


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Editor’s blog: Who should run ITV?
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