C4 exec stays true

Thompson to reject any offer from BBC

LONDON — The race to become Greg Dyke’s successor as director general at the BBC appeared to be wide open after the favorite to land the job ruled himself out of the running.

Channel 4 topper Mark Thompson, previously Dyke’s No. 2, told reporters at a press conference to announce the outfit’s annual results Tuesday that he “will turn down any approach from the BBC. I have a job I want.”

The news will be a blow to the pubcaster’s new chair, Michael Grade, who is certain to have been eyeing Thompson.

Thompson declined to divulge details of his contract with C4, but his comments follow an apparent promise to staff that he will stay put.

His words will bring relief to C4’s new chairman, entrepreneur Luke Johnson, who said at his first meeting with the media since his January appointment that he intends to keep all of C4’s largely new management team onboard.

“I hope he will stay. I think he is doing a great job,” Johnson said. “There is a level of independence here that he might not get at the BBC.”

At 46, Thompson is young enough to apply for the director general’s job next time around, after he has proved himself at C4.

The strong set of results, with profits at their highest for five years, suggests he has started to turn the broadcaster around.

Publicly owned C4, once the darling of Blighty’s creative community in TV, and to a lesser extent film because of its FilmFour initiative, returned pretax profits of £45 million ($76.5 million) for the year to the end of December. This compared with $28 million in 2002.

Ratings are stable in what is an increasingly difficult commercial terrestrial market since the February merger of two shareholder companies behind dominant broadcaster ITV and with the continued onward march of digital cable and sat channels.

Thompson said although revenue had been flat due to a difficult advertising market, the prospects for the year ahead were more encouraging.

He claimed new investment in drama was beginning to pay off, a fact reflected at the weekend’s British Academy of Film & Television Arts’ TV Awards, when C4 scooped two of the drama gongs — for Stephen Frears’ political yarn “The Deal” and for prison saga “Buried.”

Mountaineering pic “Touching the Void,” the highest-grossing docu at the U.K. box office, won a BAFTA for British film.

The annual accounts revealed how keen Thompson was to hire his new program supremo, Kevin Lygo, poached from rival Five.

C4 paid $532,000 to Lygo as a signing-on fee to compensate him for lost bonuses at Five, and $476,000 to predecessor Tim Gardam for early termination of his contract.

On the question of whether C4 might merge with terrestrial upstart Five, or form third-party agreements with other outfits, Thompson said no decisions had been made, but he expected to make recommendations to the government and regulators later this year.

“We’re looking at a range of options,” he said.

Thompson said his drive to make the station less dependent on U.S. imports was paying off, adding, “Acquired shows are part of C4’s heritage, but they have to feel they belong on C4. ‘Nip/Tuck,’ ‘The OC’ and ‘The Simpsons’ all feel like C4 programs.”

Meanwhile, Johnson, whose appointment has rekindled speculation that the government intends to privatize C4 because of his track record as an entrepreneur, ruled out selling off the station but suggested another business model, possibly a trust, might be a better way to protect the outfit’s independence in the future.

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