Grade prepares to unveil results

On Wednesday, Michael Grade, hailed as the savior of battling British web ITV, presents his second set of annual results as the outfit’s executive chairman.

Hired amidst general rejoicing in November 2006 to spearhead ITV’s much longed-for revival, Grade has found turning round the terrestrial giant to be a much tougher job than he had hoped.

The company’s stock price has fallen by almost 40% in the past six months and following an improved ratings performance for flagship web, ITV1, last year, this recovery looks to have hit the sand with the failure of a dramatic overhaul of ITV1 peak-time schedule that kicked in two months ago.

Last Thursday Grade, who is fond of making headline-grabbing initiatives, announced that one of British television’s most widely respected webheads was coming on board to help him fix ITV.

This is not the first time the publicity conscious former BBC chairman and Channel 4 chairman has hired a highly rated topper to beef up the broadcaster’s executive team. Last May Dawn Airey, former head of Five, was given the task of raising ITV’s global game.

The latest big name signing is Peter Fincham, whose two years running ITV1’s main rival, BBC1, ended in ignominy last fall when he resigned following a very public row over doctored footage in a BBC documentary about the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, commissioned under his watch.

It is easy to see the appeal of getting the former head of your biggest rival to sign up — and the move, announced the same day ITV said it had extended Grade’s own contract by a year, will certainly buy Grade a bit more time as he attempts to persuade the City, London’s financial district, that its faith in him is not misplaced.

But will Fincham really be any more successful than his predecessor, Simon Shaps, who leaves ITV in April, apparently by mutual consent, after two and a half years in charge of the broadcaster’s programs?

Fincham, whose strengths are principally in comedy and entertainment, was a highly successful channel head, but it is often forgotten that he inherited BBC1 when it was already in fine fettle.

In fact, it was Fincham’s predecessor, Lorraine Heggessey, who thanks to the BBC’s then bulging coffers, was able to put BBC1 ahead of ITV1 for the first time ever, a position the private web so far has failed to reverse.

And was Shaps’ record as bad as some of his critics suggest? Since Shaps’ took over the programming brief, the old warhorse has rediscovered risk-taking and even started making comedy again.

Here’s what Grade himself said as recently as last December: “ITV1 has had a superb recovery, its best year since 2001.”

Indeed the channel’s audience share fell by just 2.1% last year, its best perf since 2001 — and a considerable achievement in view of the onward rush of a multi-channel, multi-platform world. During the same period Blighty’s Channel 4 plunged by an eye-watering 18.6%.

When, then, has Fincham replaced Shaps? Essentially because ITV1’s January relaunch, hailed by Shaps himself as the biggest shake-up of the channel in 25 years, is failing to reap instant rewards — and Grade needs to get the City off his back.

That said, doesn’t Fincham’s appointment smack of panic? Network toppers on both sides of the Atlantic are feeling the heat from the impact of new media, and ITV, truth be told, has a dismal record in getting ahead of the game in anything much to do with digital.

However talented Fincham is, he too will have to commission and schedule shows that make a noise despite the rival distractions of multi-channel and broadband.

For all his brilliance, there is a nagging suspicion that Fincham, who made his name running U.K. shingle Talback by backing edgy comics like Steve Coogan and Sacha Baron Cohen, may lack the populist touch ITV needs to secure those vital but elusive new break-out hits.

Grade always said turning round ITV would take three years. As he finalizes his presentation to the City for Wednesday’s results he needs no reminding that the clock is ticking.

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