ITV chief hops to rival

Abrupt exit for Airey

In a surprise move, ITV topper Dawn Airey has quit to join pan-European TV giant RTL Group, where her new role will include chairing ITV’s terrestrial rival Five, the web she helped to launch 12 years ago.

The news is a significant blow to ITV exec chairman Michael Grade, who handpicked Airey as part of his senior team, and is certain to reignite speculation of an RTL bid for ITV.

In a terse statement, Grade, who appointed Airey to revive ITV production in Blighty and overseas, made no reference to his former lieutenant and once-potential successor, who arrived at the broadcaster in October to run ITV Global Content.

ITV said that Airey’s departure is effective immediately. She will join RTL following an “extended period of gardening leave.”

ITV Global will now be run by ex-Fox topper Lee Bartlett, whom Airey recruited earlier this year.

In his statement, Grade said: “We have assembled a strong team to lead our global content business, and they will now report to Lee. I will spend more of my time in the content business to ensure that the momentum is maintained.”

Airey had been charged with doubling ITV’s production sales by 2012 and was recently appointed to ITV’s main board, fueling speculation that Airey would succeed Grade when he stands down in 2010.

But German media giant Bertelsmann’s RTL offers opportunities beyond the U.K. for the fiercely ambitious exec.

Airey was at Five from 1996-2003 and was upped from director of programs to CEO. Her move back could put Five’s present CEO, Jane Lighting, in a delicate position.

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