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New Dawn breaks at Iostar

Executives perplexed by Airey's decision to quit BSkyB

LONDON — She is one of British TV’s premier players, famous for speaking the plain truth when other suits prefer to be diplomatic and stick to the script.

Why, then, is Dawn Airey standing down as head of channels at Europe’s leading paybox BSkyB to head Iostar, an upstart outfit surrounded in mystery?

It is not as if her job as the satcaster’s creative head is accomplished — ratings for flagship web Sky One continue to slide and rumors persist that some of her key lieutenants may be about to jump ship.

“Dawn is escaping because she is unhappy at Sky,” says a colleague, adding that she wanted the top job at commercial broadcast giant ITV, recently filled by Michael Grade. “With that vacancy filled, she has decided to take a risk by joining what could be a very exciting startup venture.”

Airey, managing director of Sky Networks, will leave next spring to become CEO of Iostar, an ambitious new venture apparently being built on the business model of a Hollywood studio.

The aim is to be a one-stop shop for TV, film and legit production, advertising production, distribution and talent management.

“Iostar is virgin territory for a British entertainment and media company,” says Theresa Wise, executive partner, communications and high tech, at Accenture. “As I understand it, the backers want to create a company where talent wants to work and where talent can work across lots of different platforms.”

Brit actors Stephen Fry, a fixture on British TV screens, and Hugh Laurie, lauded for his role in edgy medical saga “House,” are believed to be on board.

One of Iostar’s directors is ex-Hallmark topper Mark Grenside, whose resume includes a stint at Jim Henson; he refuses to elaborate on the upstart’s objectives.

However, ex-U.K. Disney chief-turned-media consultant Paul Robinson says: “Mark is a real creative heavyweight who can work across a range of genres.”

Airey, who helped launch Blighty’s last terrestrial channel, Five, almost a decade ago, also is being uncharacteristically tight-lipped.

The only quote in the press release announcing her exit from BSkyB came from CEO James Murdoch, who called her “a valued colleague and trusted friend. When the time comes, we will wish her well for the future.”

This is not the first time the 46-year-old maverick has surprised U.K. media watchers.

Three and a half years ago Airey suddenly quit the CEO’s seat at Five to join BSkyB following protracted talks with ITV.

BSkyB’s then CEO, Tony Ball, famously persuaded her to join the satcaster over lunch.

She had gone to the eatery expecting Ball to make an offer for Five. Instead, he told Airey, “I only want to buy you.”

But within months of her joining BSkyB, chairman Rupert Murdoch ousted Ball and replaced him with son James.

What, then, is Airey’s legacy at BSkyB?

Her critics claim the paybox still lacks a creative program culture — something she was tapped to fix.

This year audiences for the channel, whose most popular skein is “The Simpsons,” fell 9%.

Sky News — for which Airey is responsible — is having a tough time following an ill-judged relaunch in the fall of 2005 as rival BBC News 24’s audience share grows.

On the plus side, Airey has hired talented execs including Sky One controller Richard Woolfe and acquisitions topper Sophie Turner-Laing.

This fall Airey oversaw the poaching of “Lost” from another of her old employers, Channel 4, paying a record-breaking $1.7 million an episode.

In the past she famously said one of her biggest jobs at BSkyB had been to “get rid of all the shit” on Sky One.

Starting with a blank sheet of paper at Iostar, Airey faces no similar challenge in her new job.