End of an era as billion-dollar gamble costs honcho his job
LONDON — The shareholder rebellion that led to last week’s bloody ousting of Carlton founder Michael Green from his role as chairman of the soon-to-be merged ITV web marks the end of an era in British television.
In many ways Green, a self-made millionaire by the time he was 21, personified all that his critics felt to be wrong with British commercial TV in the 1990s — a brash, get-rich-quick attitude short on long-term business strategy and creative leadership.
Green’s fatal mistake was to gamble — and lose — $1.5 billion on terrestrial pay TV venture ITV Digital last year.
That lost him the confidence of City investors, who last week ganged up to make sure he did not remain in charge of the single ITV company set to form early next year from the $6.5 billion merger of Carlton with fellow shareholder and broadcaster Granada.
Few in TV’s creative community are shedding tears for his passing.
For the best part of a decade, Carlton, despite owning around half of ITV, failed to rid itself of an early reputation for poor programs that fell short of the trailblazing fare regularly trotted out in the 1980s by the company it supplanted, Thames TV.
When in 1998 the company was fined $2.8 million for a faked doc about drug trafficking, some observers reckoned that was a disaster of editorial mismanagement that had been waiting to happen.
To blame one man for these errors is perhaps unfair.
“He made a lot of enemies, but Michael was a brilliant entrepreneur, and he can’t be blamed for doing what the politicians wanted, which was to bring a much more commercial edge to ITV,” says an ex-colleague.
He adds: “The regulators should also take some responsibility for what happened to ITV Digital, and no one should forget that Granada was a 50% partner in the enterprise.”
True enough, but with Green out of the picture, the merger between Granada and Carlton to form ITV looks more than ever like a Granada coup.
“It’s not a merger in any real sense: It’s a Granada takeover,” reckons an ITV veteran. “With one exception, all the key posts have been filled by Granada people.
“At least we know what we are getting now, but with some fed-up shareholders this is the beginning of a period of uncertainty rather than the end of it.
“There’s a bumpy ride ahead that may or may not end up in Viacom or a Haim Saban buying ITV.”
Now that Green is history, and with the financial market determined to appoint someone untainted by ITV’s past failures as the new chairman, Granada ought to be free to concentrate all its energies on the huge challenges that lie ahead.
“ITV spent much of the ’90s looking inward because it was preoccupied with consolidation,” says a Granada director. “Now we can put a new strategy in place and drive that forward.”
Much will depend on the performance of Granada chief Charles Allen, CEO elect of ITV.
Allen is a dapper accountant and supporter of Prime Minister Tony Blair who slogged his way to the top from a blue-collar background in Scotland. He was dismissed as an “upstart caterer” by creatives when he arrived at Granada 12 years ago.
He is famed for his ability to cut costs and for getting Granada to adhere to strict, financial disciplines.
Allen may be a bean counter but his supporters insist that, unlike Green, he understands programs are not just part of an industrial process. He see them as being of paramount importance if ITV is to stand any chance of re-emerging to be a powerful force providing effective competition for the BBC and BSkyB.
But it’s public knowledge that Green’s nemesis, Anthony Bolton of the Fidelity fund management group who led the revolt and will own 9% of the merged ITV, was initially demanding Allen’s scalp, too.
While Allen must be relieved that Green will no longer be there on the flight deck with him — the two were hardly soul mates — the events of the last week prove that stockholders are in no mood to take prisoners.
He also knows that while he is likely to emerge even wealthier should a U.S. company mount a successful bid for ITV, large parts of the local TV industry would never forgive him for being the man who delivered what was once the undisputed star of British commercial broadcasting to the Americans.
Under those circumstances Allen would go down in history alongside Green as the other bogeyman who helped bury ITV.