U.K. TV confab to address sector in turmoil

BBC, ITV, Channel 4 under scrutiny

LONDON -- The lofty spires of Kings College Cambridge will play host to a U.K. TV sector in turmoil this week, with the future of Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan in question and the mounting possibility that former BSkyB boss Tony Ball will take over as CEO of ITV set to dominate a three-day conference, at which the future role of the BBC will likely also be put under the microscope.

As the industry's elite gather for the Royal Television Society's biennial policy debate, speculation that Channel 4's Duncan will announce his resignation has been mounting to fever pitch.

As recently as two weeks ago, Duncan told journalists at the Edinburgh Television Festival that he had no plans to quit the broadcaster.

"It is rumor, speculation and gossip...there has been rumor and speculation for the last five years. There is nothing to tell, there has been no board meeting and no vote of no confidence," Duncan said.

But sources close to the broadcaster say although the board has not officially sanctioned a vote of no confidence, that a departure deal and severance package are being ratified and that an announcement about Duncan's departure is "imminent."

His likely departure will follow the failure of plans to craft an alliance between Channel 4 and the BBC's commercial arm BBC Worldwide, despite months of talks, and the network's inability to secure more public funding to meet its program budget deficit, as well as the decision to back out of Duncan's plans for Channel 4-branded digital Radio.

Duncan's departure is complicated by the planned departure of Channel 4 chairman Luke Johnson, who will step down at the year-end. Until a successor can be found for Johnson, an appointment as chief executive is unlikely.

Duncan is scheduled to speak on a panel in Cambridge Friday alongside ITV executive chairman Michael Grade and BBC director general Mark Thompson, while Channel 4 chairman Johnson is scheduled to speak Thursday on a panel about the future of commercial broadcasting.

The conference will likely seek answers on the future of ITV and evaluate the ailing broadcaster's future strategy if -- as is widely expected -- former BSkyB CEO Tony Ball is announced as CEO.

According to sources Ball has already been offered the job but has been mired in discussions over his pay and incentives plan, with ITV's board still reportedly split on the announcement.

The pay TV expert will likely seek a buyer for ITV's production arm -- including ITV America -- which is currently run by ITV Studios CEO Lee Bartlett, and attempt to merge ITV's channels business with another pay TV platform or channel group.

Other highlights of the RTS Cambridge conference include an interview with Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt via a web-link from New York, and a keynote from culture secretary Ben Bradshaw, as well as the opening speech about the future of children's television from longtime children's television writer and producer, Phil Redmond.

The conference runs Wednesday through Friday at King's College Cambridge.