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Shaps reshapes Blighty’s ITV

New topper reshuffles exec deck and intro's 'smart-buying' strategy

LONDON Heads are rolling at the creative heart of ITV, the U.K.’s biggest private terrestrial web, and more high-powered exits loom as the new topper exerts his power and makes cuts at the embattled broadcaster.

Three months into the job, director of TV Simon Shaps has triggered a massive shakeup in commissioning power at ITV, whose flagship channel, ITV1, is attempting to regain momentum in a tough market that saw its audience share decline 5.48% in 2005.

“No one knows who’ll be next to clear their desk,” says an insider. “Everyone is paranoid.”

The biggest departure so far came the day before the ITV commissioning team left for the Christmas holiday.

On Dec. 22, it was announced that Claudia Rosencrantz, who nurtured “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” for British auds, was ankling after a decade as ITV’s entertainment supremo.

With several more hits under her belt since “Millionaire,” including talent skein “The X-Factor” and reality show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here,” Rosencrantz was one of ITV’s most successful creatives. But her reputation dipped last summer when two new shows, “Celebrity Wrestling” and “Celebrity Love Island,” tanked.

“Claudia jumped before she was pushed,” reckons a senior ITV program maker. “Over the years, she’s done a brilliant job, but the commissioning team needs new blood. In terms of its schedule, the BBC is so much more confident than ITV1, which lacks a clear focus.”

The Rosencrantz bombshell was preceded by news that ex-daytime boss Liam Hamilton was quitting following a stint masterminding ITV’s 50th-anniversary celebrations.

Next out of the revolving door was Nick Thorogood, hired as head of daytime a little more than a year ago.

More commissioners will be out in the near future as Shaps weeds out what he regards as dead wood and restructures his team around three more powerful “super controllers” in charge of drama, entertainment & comedy and factual & daytime.

Thorogood’s exit was hardly a surprise. One of Shaps’ first moves was to poach highly regarded BBC children’s topper Alison Sharman, who takes over as ITV’s director of factual and daytime later this month.

Most speculation now centers on the future of director of programs Nigel Pickard and veteran drama maven Nick Elliott. Rumor suggests Shaps has already offered the latter’s job to BBC drama maven Jane Tranter.

With Sharman in place, there is intense speculation over who will land the entertainment brief. One favorite is U.K. veteran Paul Jackson, who may return from Los Angeles where he runs Granada America.

“Nigel is seeing his commissioning team dismantled before his eyes,” observes an ex-ITV chief. “But this is all about Simon. It’s his head that is on the block, and he has to deliver.”

Shaps, son of the late actor Cyril Shaps, insists the changes are a work in progress.

“I made no secret when I started that I intended to strengthen the commissioning team, both numerically and in terms of the brief that certain controllers will have,” Shaps says. “I have taken steps to do that.”

Shaps has a long association with ITV. He rose through the ranks to become, in 1997, director of programs at Granada, ITV’s main program supplier and Blighty’s biggest TV studio after the BBC.

Shaps, educated at Cambridge U. and Harvard, where he attended a management course, is examining how best to cut ITV’s program costs by introducing a new system known as smart buying, which is likely to see more fare commissioned from indies.

Program makers are worried that Shaps intends to “cut, cut and cut again,” but ITV says that while less coin is being spent on original network commissions in 2006 than in ’05, the decrease is due to the cost of World Cup soccer rights. Total ITV1 budget this year is in excess of £800 million ($1.36 billion).

Shaps is unlikely to be sentimental about taking fewer shows from Granada if he can get them made more efficiently elsewhere.

“ITV’s emphasis is now firmly on broadcasting, not production, because that’s what drives the bottom line,” says an independent producer.

As multichannel continues to make gains in the U.K. (its viewing share increased by nearly 13% last year) and new platforms like broadband and mobile threaten ITV’s main source of income — advertising revenue — Shaps needs no reminding that ITV1 has to perform better overall this year than it did in 2005.

But luck could be on his side.

This summer’s soccer World Cup will drive audiences in soccer-mad Blighty and following a disastrous summer for ITV1, the fall was strong as “The X-Factor” and “I’m a Celebrity” caned rivals.

However, a complex deal agreed with regulators known as Contracts Rights Renewal, which means ITV would be forced to reimburse advertisers if viewership targets are not met, makes the pressure on Shaps still greater.

Meanwhile, as the new director of television attempts to make ITV1 more competitive, there remains the possibility that an American media conglom, possibly in partnership with a U.K. equity firm, may make a bid for the broadcaster.

In which case, the present upheaval will begin to look minor.

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