LONDON — Mark Thompson, CEO of Channel 4, has been appointed director general of the BBC.
Move, widely expected though Thompson had repeatedly said he would remain at C4, comes less than a week after the pubcaster’s new chairman, Michael Grade, arrived at the corporation.
Speed of the appointment shows Grade’s determination to get the pubcaster back on course following the Hutton report and its damning verdict on BBC journalism and management processes that led to the resignations in January of Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies, director general and chairman of the BBC, respectively.
For Thompson, 46, the elevation to one of the world’s top broadcasting jobs marks the climax of a gilded career, all of which had been spent at the BBC until he joined C4 just over two years ago.
Thompson’s credentials are impressive: He’s a former editor of arguably the pubcaster’s two key journalism programs, current affairs skein “Panorama” and “The Nine O’Clock News,” and a highly successful controller of BBC2.
But as a manager he will have to work hard to win over staff in the way Dyke did. He may be deeply respected, but he is a more remote figure than his predecessor and lacks Dyke’s charisma.
But Thompson is a shrewd strategist whose thinking as the BBC’s former director of television, when he was effectively Dyke’s right-hand man, was responsible for many of the pubcaster’s present policies.
He will therefore be well equipped to spearhead the BBC through the choppy waters of charter review, a process that was derailed by Dyke and Davies’ ignominious exits, due for renewal in 2006.
Tall, Oxford educated (Thompson still lives in Oxford) and a practicing Catholic married to an American wife, the new director general could not be more different than man-of-the-people Dyke, at least on paper.
But in common with Dyke, Thompson can be a highly competitive operator. While many will interpret his appointment as another signal that the BBC intends to move upscale and reaffirm its public service credentials, the new chief is likely to work hard to keep ratings high at the pubcaster’s main terrestrial channels, BBC1 and 2.
His appointment is a blow to acting director general Mark Byford, but few industryites expected him to get the top job after he was perceived as kowtowing to government pressure following Dyke’s ouster.
It is also bad news for C4, where of late Thompson had started to make big strides in preparing the broadcaster for a less regulated, more competitive era, even holding talks with shareholders at rival net Five about a possible tie-up.
C4 could now be very vulnerable due to a lack of experienced senior executives. Its new chairman, Luke Johnston, was only appointed a matter of months ago and has no significant broadcasting experience.
The web’s director of television, Kevin Lygo, is also a recent appointment although he has worked at C4 previously, as head of entertainment.
Dawn Airey, a former C4 commissioning editor and CEO of Five, and now managing director of Sky Networks, is being tipped to succeed Thompson.
Like Grade, Johnston will need to act fast and appoint a new CEO as soon as is practically possible.