ITV's Grade pledges improvements

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LONDON -- Newly anointed ITV executive chairman and chief executive Michael Grade on Tuesday pledged to make the broadcaster "not just the most loved British broadcaster but the most popular, most relevant and most innovative one," saying that his impact on the troubled network will be felt "by the second half of 2007."

The BBC chairman's bombshell defection to ITV came after a month of plot twists, takeover talks and dawn raids at Britain's most popular commercial network that proved more than a match for even its most colorful drama programs.

Speaking on a conference call after ITV confirmed his appointment to the stock market Tuesday, Grade conceded that he had "not watched much ITV programming in the last year" and struggled to name recent shows. But he said he was relishing the prospect of having a much closer relationship with its creative brief than he had in his role at the BBC.

Grade threw his weight behind ITV's current creative line-up, headed by director of television Simon Shaps, and said he will boost ITV's £1 billion ($1.9 billion) a year program budget "if necessary." ITV is expected to ditch plans for a further buyback of £250 million worth of shares, and instead may invest the money in programming.

"I am not going to be rewriting schedules, though I will be looking at them. What we need is a period of real stability and I think there is a very good team here and all they need is some confidence and support and a bit of creative direction," Grade said. "Clearly this is an organization that has been through a difficult period. Uncertainty and creative confidence don't go together."

Grade said that ITV's strengths will be its "commitment to originated British programming and British audiences" rather than the U.S. acquisitions-driven agenda of the leading digital channels.

Asked if he felt that his defection to ITV amounted to a betrayal of his responsibility to see the BBC through its license fee settlement, Grade replied "Not at all."

Said Grade: "The BBC is a very strong organization with a great many bright minds. When (the ITV chairman) approached me last week and I felt it was a job I wanted to do, the best and most honorable thing to do was to get it done quickly and out in the open."

Asked about his relationship with BSkyB, which two weeks ago took a 17.9% stake in ITV, Grade said the News Corp.-controlled satcaster will be treated "like any other shareholder."

BSkyB did not officially comment on Grade's appointment, but sources close to the satcaster said the appointment was good news for both.

"We are pleased that the board has moved quickly to bring in new leadership and a leader of some stature," a senior Sky source said. "We did say when we announced our investment in ITV that we saw scope in long-term value and the appointment of new leadership would be one of the priorities in that. We look forward to hearing more from the board in due course about its future strategy."

Richard Branson, who had attempted a merger with ITV before BSkyB swooped in to become ITV's biggest shareholder, also welcomed the news.

"We would like to congratulate Michael Grade on his appointment as executive chairman of ITV. He is a delightful person with a long-standing reputation in the industry," Branson said. "We very much hope that today's news signals a better creative future for commercial terrestrial television in the U.K. and I look forward to meeting him in the new year."

Entertainment industry analysts also welcomed the appointment of Grade. Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Thomas Eagan said the move "emboldens ITV" and "reduces (the) likelihood of (another) NTL offer" for ITV. "Mr. Grade is a well-respected U.K. media executive and we believe is likely to invest significantly in improving ITV's programming, employee morale and relationships with advertisers, all key elements to a turnaround," Eagan said.

Meanwhile, NTL is likely to "focus back on operations," mainly the continued integration of the recent takeovers of Telewest and Virgin Mobile, the analyst suggested.

Grade will take over as combined chairman and chief executive of ITV on Jan. 1, but expects to appoint a standalone chief executive after 2009. Current chairman Peter Burt will exit in March.

The former Channel 4 chief executive and BBC director of television joins an organization that his uncle, Lew Grade, helped launch in 1955, and said that the strength of his sentimental connections as well as his desire for a creative challenge were the reasons he took the job.

"That's at the heart of it. I have deep roots in ITV, very deep roots, family roots," he said.

Grade will officially join the commercial broadcaster in the new year but already has severed links with the BBC, where he has served as chairman since 2004.

He will play no further part in BBC affairs, leaving director general Mark Thompson to carry on the increasingly difficult negotiations for the BBC license fee alone.
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