Making the grade at the BBC

Charismatic chairman faces uphill battle

LONDON — So, the beleaguered BBC has chosen a new chairman — the question now is, will industry vet Michael Grade make the grade?

Relieved staffers evidently think so. They greeted their new topper with cheers at an April 2 press conference at the Corp.’s West London offices.

The charismatic Grade, 61, appeared to be as keen to play to his new employees as to answer reporters’ questions.

Some staffers may have worked under Grade during his four-year stint at the Beeb in the 1980s when he was controller of BBC1 before becoming the BBC’s director of programs.

Unfortunately, guaranteeing the BBC’s future in a rapidly changing media market — following the worst crisis in its 80-year history — will be a much tougher act.

Grade takes up the £81,320-a-year ($150,000) part-time post for four years beginning 17 May — and he faces a bulging in-tray.

He must lift morale at the battered pubcaster, still reeling from the resignations of chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke after January’s Hutton report accused the BBC of journalistic malpractice and poor management.

Appointing Dyke’s successor will go a long way to achieving that.

Channel 4 CEO Mark Thompson, formerly Dyke’s right-hand man at the BBC, is the obvious choice, having spent his entire career, before joining C4, at the Corp.

For Grade, also a C4 topper between 1988 and 1997, the bad news is that Thompson is playing hard to get and may accept a golden handcuffs deal to stay put.

“Michael likes pulling rabbits out of hats,” says an ex-colleague, “and poaching the head of C4 to run the BBC would give him enormous pleasure.”

The new director general may also find his chairman is more hands-on than previous incumbents.

“In the short term, this is a very good appointment,” says a British TV veteran. “Grade is likely to be a much more effective chairman than his predecessor. He will make people inside the BBC feel good.

“But Michael’s weakness is that he is a traditional broadcaster. You’ve got to ask yourself: Is this what the country needs, given all the challenges the BBC faces in the next two years.”

His critics suggest that, in common with Dyke, he will encourage the BBC to aggressively chase ratings at the expense of the high-quality, public-service TV the BBC is mandated to provide.

At the press call, Grade — described as Blighty’s “pornographer in chief” by the Daily Mail when he ran C4 — denied he would sacrifice quality for high audience figures.

Ultimately, he said, the way to repeal the damage caused by the Hutton report was “by doing what the BBC does best — making wonderful programs.”

However, rival webs are already whining about the BBC’s commercial edge, and that could have some weight in government negotiations with the BBC over the renewal of its charter, due in 2006.

This document defines the scope of the pubcaster’s activities and how generously (or not) these are funded from the license fee that each TV-owning home must pay.

Rivals want the BBC reined in, arguing that with its huge online presence and portfolio of five digital TV stations, it is providing unfair competition.

As advertising revenue falls, some commercial channels are demanding a slice of license-fee income to fund their own public service fare.

They have even raised the specter of the BBC’s TV channels becoming pay services sometime after 2010.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government remains essentially sympathetic to a license-fee-funded BBC.

However, ministers may change the structure of the board of governors that Grade will chair and force the BBC to take more programs from independents.

One of the chairman’s chief responsibilities is to act as a buffer between the BBC and the government and maintaining the pubcaster’s editorial independence.

“Michael has been through a lot of broadcasting battles. There’s not much that can rattle him,” says ex-BBC topper Will Wyatt. “As we’ve seen, that kind of experience can be invaluable. He is his own man, and if the BBC and the license fee needs to be defended, he will do it very strongly.”

Others, however, wonder if Grade’s maverick tendencies and what they claim is his weak appetite for detail work may undermine him, the same way that led to Dyke’s ouster.

According to Wyatt, Grade has another shortcoming: “He’s a crowdpleaser, which may lead him to take the wrong decisions on appointments.”

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