U.K.’s ailing GMTV shifts top staffers

ITV’s new breakfast station GMTV, which is 25% owned by the Walt Disney Co., has changed its chairman and its program director after a disappointing first six weeks on air.

Program director Lis Howell was axed yesterday, following last Friday’s announcement that Greg Dyke, chief exec of LWT, was taking over as GMTV’s new chairman.

Dyke replaces Harry Roche, chief exec of the GMEN publishing group, who remains as a director. GMEN owns 15% of GMTV, and LWT owns 20%.

Howell, one of the few women at the top of ITV, has been replaced by Peter McHugh, a current affairs producer.

Dyke is the man whose populist program strategy was widely credited with salvaging the previous ITV breakfast station, TV-am, when it faced bankruptcy shortly after its launch 10 years ago, and transforming it into a highly profitable business.

Miracle cure

GMTV’s shareholders are quick to dismiss suggestions that their company is facing a similar crisis, but, in the words of one director, they are hoping that Dyke will be “the magic pill which makes the patient leap out of bed.”

GMTV launched at the start of this year, after outbidding TV-am in the 1991 auction of ITV licenses. Since it took over the ITV early morning slot, GMTV has struggled to duplicate TV-am’s success in the ratings, and has been panned by the critics. According to Dyke, the station needs to increase its audience by 15 %.

GMTV’s biggest problem is that it must pay the government a crippling T34.6 million a year for the right to broadcast — the amount of its winning bid in the ITV auction. TV-am’s losing bid was less than half that figure, leading TV-am boss Bruce Gyngell to predict that GMTV would go bust within 18 months.

The company also faces unexpectedly tough competition from Channel 4’s new breakfast show, “The Big Breakfast,” which is proving particularly popular with children. Ironically, given Disney’s involvement in GMTV, kids’ programming is the station’s weakest area.

Rich Frank, president of Walt Disney Studios, was present as an observer at the board meeting Thursday that decided on the change of chairman.

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