Grade faces struggle for BBC's future
By Kate Bulkley
April 06, 2004
LONDON -- Michael Grade, the newly installed chairman of the BBC, began his new job with a standing ovation from staffers. But there will be little time for celebration at the embattled British pubcaster as it faces its biggest-ever political battle.
The tussle will focus on how the BBC as a public service broadcaster is structured, regulated and funded after its charter expires in 2006. It's a fight that will take plenty of political dexterity as well as a keen understanding of the broadcasting business — skills that Grade has honed during his 30 years in the TV business, including stints as BBC director of programs, CEO of Channel 4 and even four years in Hollywood, when he was president of Embassy Television in the early 1980s.
"I don't think there has ever been a chairman of the BBC that knows as much about the BBC as Michael Grade," said Stewart Purvis, ex-CEO of ITN News, the biggest competitor to BBC News. "That is going to save him a lot of time in getting to the crucial issues that need to be gotten to quite quickly."
The debate about the BBC's future has always been contentious given the robust growth of multichannel TV in the United Kingdom, which puts a question mark over the role the BBC should play in an increasingly well-served TV marketplace. But discussion about the BBC's future has become all the more heated since the publication this year of Lord Hutton's report into the death of government weapons inspector David Kelly, which laid much of the blame squarely on the BBC's journalistic practices. That in turn lead to the resignations of BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke.
In his inaugural press conference Friday — held in front of the BBC staff who stood to applaud the new chairman in a patent indication of general approval — Grade took the big issues head on. He vowed that he is committed to retaining the BBC's license fee, that the role of the board of governors that regulates the BBC is in "urgent need of clarification" and, probably most importantly, that the editorial independence of the BBC is "paramount."
"Michael's strengths are a great commercial savvy, strong feel for entertainment and what works in the TV schedule and, surprisingly, perhaps alongside of that, a strong, personal commitment to what we all call public service broadcasting," said David Elstein, former CEO of Channel 5 and the author of a recent report on BBC funding for the Tory Party. "Michael feels public service broadcasting deep down. He also has a sentimental attachment to the BBC, and this won't be the first time he has given up a lot of income to come and work there."
The first big task for Grade, who takes up his position May 17, is to help pick a new director general of the BBC. Media reports have mentioned John Willis, currently director of factual and learning at the BBC, and Grade's director of programs while he was at Channel 4, as being one possible contender. Other names being mentioned in media reports include Mark Thompson, CEO of Channel 4 and a former BBC controller; Jana Bennett, BBC director of television; and Michael Jackson, a former BBC director of TV and BBC1 controller who has been working for Universal Television in Los Angeles for the past several years. Mark Byford, the acting director general, also is a candidate.
Grade has been ostensibly out of mainstream broadcasting for several years. He moved into the leisure industry in 1997 and since 2002 has been chairman of the Camelot Group, which runs the National Lottery in the United Kingdom, as well as being executive chairman of Pinewood and Shepperton studios. He has been asked by the BBC to inform it of any shareholdings or other interests he may have in global media companies, including Time Warner, BSkyB and the Walt Disney Co.
But his understanding of the broadcast business worldwide has been roundly praised. "He's a massive industry person," said Jeff Foulser, CEO of indie producer the Television Corp., which has had Grade as a director since last year and as interim chairman for the past six weeks after its former chairman stepped down. "Michael has huge experience and is very well-connected. He is a superb chairman of meetings because he finds a way to bring everyone into the picture."
It is Grade's skills as a communicator and a facilitator that may be his biggest asset in the review of the BBC charter and in how he takes the BBC forward. "Michael is a very persuasive lobbyist and an extremely good inspirer of the troops, and he is someone who understands a lot of the editorial pressure that come to bear on a major broadcaster," Elstein said.
"He's an apolitical appointment, and he won't kowtow to the government or to anybody else," said Foulser of the TV Corp. 'He'll do what he thinks is right for the BBC, and that's the way it should be."