C4 bombshell: Grade ankling as chief exec

LONDON – Michael Grade has shocked the British TV industry by resigning as chief executive of Channel 4.

A Channel 4 statement said only that Grade, the highest-profile figure on the U.K. TV scene, ”wishes to leave the television industry and pursue his other business interests.”

C4 chairman Michael Bishop said, ”The board has agreed terms to release Michael from his service contract in consideration of a compensatory payment and legal undertakings not to compete with the channel.” Grade’s five-year contract had been due to run through June 2000. He agreed to pay the company about £105,000 ($170,000) in compensation.

Grade’s resignation prompted speculation that he might become chief executive of English football’s Premier League.

“I don’t really want to say anything for a while until I am able to talk about the future, which will be shortly, but not tonight,” Grade said.

Another suggested scenario had Grade, involved in a bid for Rank Film Distributors, which is currently up for sale. He headed a failed attempt three years ago to buy Rank’s entire film business, which also spans Pinewood Studios, film processing and video duplication.

But RFD on its own would probably be too small a business to attract Grade, unless it were the platform to launch a larger movie venture. Grade, who comes from a well-known show business family, is also non-executive chairman of VCI, the U.K.’s leading video distributor.

Grade became chief exec of Channel 4 in 1988, and reupped for another five years in 1993. He will relinquish his post at an unspecified time later this year.

Classic showman

Within the British TV industry Grade is known as a flamboyant and idiosyncratic showman with a love of the spotlight. Abroad he is best known as the figurehead for Channel 4’s highly successful policy of investing in British movies, which has resulted in such pics as “Four Weddings and a Funeral, ”Trainspotting” and ”Secrets & Lies.”

Grade has led the web to growing commercial success, and survived criticisms that his populist style was taking the channel away from its brief to cater for minority audiences. The channel was founded in 1982 as a public service corporation funded by income from advertising.

Privatization option

Its robust financial performance has led to political suggestions that the web should be privatized, which Grade has resolutely opposed.

Grade always said that when he finally quit Channel 4, he would turn his entrepreneurial talents to a different area of entertainment or leisure industry. Bishop said Grade had told him before Christmas that he wanted to leave the TV industry, where he had worked for 23 years.

With the privatization question still hanging in the air, his departure comes at a sensitive time for Channel 4. David Scott, currently finance director, has been appointed to the new post of managing director, and the board will now start the search for a new chief exec to replace Grade’s charismatic leadership. It’s sure to be the most hotly sought after job in the British TV business.

(Reuters contributed to this report.)

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