U.K. measures the 'Grade factor'

Expectations high as former BBC boss ascends at ITV

When former BBC chairman Michael Grade shows up for work Monday at his new job as head of ITV, the broadcast industry will be asking if he can breathe new life into the commercial broadcaster and, crucially, whether his legendary charisma can attract more creative talent to ITV.

"The appointment of Michael Grade could prove to be a masterstroke," said Lorna Tilbian, an analyst at London-based Numis Securities. "We have long held the view that the turnaround of ITV would need to be creative-led."

Grade's ability to revamp creative output at ITV will be critical for the broadcaster. With key areas of ITV's schedule such as drama suffering last year in comparison to rivals the BBC and Channel 4, the network is in need of a fresh injection of talent.

Plodding domestic "bankers" — such as long-running rural drama "Heartbeat" — have been far outshone by ritzy new fare such as the BBC's "Life on Mars" and "Torchwood," leading to accusations by senior insiders that the channel has become "bargain basement" and "unwatchable."

That this critique comes from no less a figure than Andy Harries, the ITV drama, film and comedy controller who executive produced recent Helen Mirren starrer "The Queen," is an indication of how significant the problem has become.

Many will be looking to Grade to provide much-needed support for ITV to take more creative risks as well as to broaden its talent lineup, despite the commercial pressures the broadcaster continues to face.

"ITV has traditionally not been as experimental (as the BBC). It's a commercial station so it has to think about that," said Duncan Heath, chairman of talent agency ICM. "The BBC has traditionally allowed talent to breathe. They stuck with shows like "Blackadder" beyond just the first (season) and they went on to be huge successes."

Representing some of the U.K.'s leading writers, directors and producers, including "Prime Suspect" screenwriter Lynda La Plante and writer-comedian Steve Coogan, Heath believes that Grade's charisma and production background will go some way to generating more traction for ITV.

But he points out that the odds are stacked in favor of the main broadcasters.

"Talent is looking to get employed. It's not more complicated than that. I'd love to wrap it up in some more elaborate way," Heath said. "There are not that many places that talent can go anyway, so a stronger ITV is much better than a weaker one in that respect.

"Michael (Grade) is well-liked and well-known, he's very talent-friendly, which from talent's point of view means that he might choose their show."

As one of the U.K. media's more colorful characters — with a much-documented fondness for red suspenders, yachts and big cigars — Grade always has been much closer to the creative types than his tenure in the relatively dry role of BBC chairman would suggest.

His roots in deeply populist entertainment predate even his time as head of BBC1 and chief executive of Channel 4 in the late '80s and, more recently, as chairman of the Pinewood and Shepperton studios.

His father, Leslie Grade, was a leading theatrical agent and his uncles were the impresarios Lew Grade (Lord Grade, one of the founders of commercial television in the U.K.) and Bernard Delfont, one-time head of EMI. His half-sister, Anita Land, remains one of the U.K.'s most powerful television and literary agents.

"I think that the skill of the people at the top of a broadcasting organization at charming talent and having a creative dialogue is very important," said RDF chief creative officer Stephen Lambert, creator of such shows as "Wife Swap" and "Ladette to Lady." Lambert believes that Grade will be able to reassure talent that ITV is a good place to work.

"The most successful channels have had people at the top who are good at doing that and who are prepared to devote a lot of energy to that," Lambert said. "Michael Grade will add to that, but that's not to say that ITV is missing that altogether as it stands."

When Grade begins work at ITV in January, interest in whether the "Grade factor" can turn around a broadcaster that was thought to be in terminal decline will extend far beyond the portals of the commercial broadcaster.

As one broadcasting executive who declined to be named commented: "More than perhaps anyone else, Michael has built his career on instinct, and that's what Channel 4 and the BBC are afraid of. It's the first time that ITV has had the upper hand in a very long while."