Call it a down Grade at ITV

Top exec will give up control of beleaguered U.K. broadcaster this year

ITV executive chairman Michael Grade is relinquishing day-to-day control of the ailing broadcaster "as soon as practicable," the company said Thursday, marking the latest development in a saga that has seen the U.K.'s most powerful commercial network humbled.

ITV's board said Grade will remain nonexecutive chairman of the broadcaster, famous for such shows as "The X Factor" and "Coronation Street," but will hand the reins to a new CEO when a successor is found.

Grade will guide ITV through the current round of government and regulatory reviews of the U.K. television market but will step down this year when those are finished.

Speculation about who could replace Grade has been tempered by the scale of the challenge facing the broadcaster, but those thought to be contenders include former ProSieben CEO Guillaume de Posch, broadcasting minister and former NTL boss Stephen Carter and former Channel 4 CEO Michael Jackson.

ITV shares have risen in recent days on speculation of a bid involving Italy's Mediaset but fell 4% to 30.5 pence (44 cents) in early trading Thursday on news of Grade's departure, which will come a year before his contract expires.

"In light of the regulatory timetable now expected, Michael Grade has recommended to the board that the conclusion of the regulatory reviews would be the right time for him to relinquish his executive responsibilities and become nonexecutive chairman as planned," ITV's board said. "It is intended that a new CEO will be appointed as soon as possible."

The board added that the broadcaster has shored up its balance sheet and does not need a rights issue, which would further dilute the value of its shares, but instead will seek a buyer for SDN, its thriving digital terrestrial-channels business. SDN was thought to have been worth £300 million ($436 million) before the global credit crunch took hold. The board also said ITV has taken on an additional $84 million in covenant-free financing.

ITV announced annual losses of $3.8 billion last month. (partialdiff)
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