2017 truly marks a significant year for the upper crust of British TV broadcasting. After a tumultuous tenure spent protecting Channel 4 from the threat of privatisation and defending its controversial poaching of a flagship BBC format, its leader David Abraham announced in March that he was moving on.
Barely a month later, on the commercial channel side, the much anticipated departure of ITV’s CEO Adam Crozier was declared, leaving another hugely influential role up for grabs.
Meanwhile, Scottish media group STV’s CEO Rob Woodward is also stepping away; the Fox buyout is likely to generate a leadership realignment at Sky; and there is much speculation that 2017 may be a timely moment for the BBC’s Director General Tony Hall to pass on the reins.
It’s a remarkable series of openings within the top level of the UK media landscape – a CEO shuffle like no other. While speculation of likely successors is inevitable, it also presents a significant moment to look back at the years in which the industry was shaped by these leaders, and the extraordinary changes that have occurred both in and out of their hands.
David Abraham, who entered Channel 4 in 2010 at a somewhat challenging time (one of its flagship shows, Big Brother, was axed and profits were therefore dramatically cut), will leave on a largely positive note. Under his tenure, the channel’s revenues have soared to over £1billion, its audience share increased for the first time in a decade, and he successfully steered the broadcaster clear of a possible privatisation crisis. In addition, the controversial poaching of Bake Off from the BBC in 2016 was hotly contested at the time (with Abraham defending the expensive acquisition as a means to fund riskier programming), but will likely be seen ultimately as a definitive “programming feather in his cap”. However, he does leave some loose ends behind him – his successor will inherit the problematic government proposal to relocate Channel 4 HQ northwards.
A recruitment process is underway, and one name that has been floated by industry insiders is the departing CEO of STV, Rob Woodward. Another transformative exec, Woodward (a former Commercial Director at Channel 4) inherited STV as a company in financial trouble following the ill-advised acquisition of Ginger Media for £225m. Having methodically sold off non-core businesses and payed off debt, he argues STV now has a “very strong balance sheet [and is] paying a very progressive dividend yielding over four per cent for our shareholders”. Home-grown Scottish output has also been pushed for under Woodward’s tenure.
ITV’s Adam Crozier perhaps leaves the most notable legacy of all – when he arrived at the UK’s largest free-to-air commercial broadcaster seven years ago, the company was mired in debt and he is largely credited with a complete overturning of its fortunes. Stepping in while ITV was in the throes of post-recession crisis, Crozier reduced its reliance on advertising and built up its production arm. Now ITV Studios, and its acquired production houses, are producing hugely popular shows such as Victoria and Line of Duty, and the broadcaster’s share price has quadrupled since Crozier picked up the mantle from Michael Grade. He leaves behind him a formidable business with an ambitious content team led by the recently-appointed Kevin Lygo. Perhaps the greatest contention Crozier has faced across his leadership has been his pay packet – he’s reported to have received more than £27m in pay, bonus and incentive payouts during his tenure.
At the UK’s largest pay-TV broadcaster, Sky, there is a possibility that its current leader Jeremy Darroch will slide away with the creeping takeover by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group. However, this eventuality is becoming less certain as the Fox empire becomes increasingly hit by scandal, and Ofcom ups its investigations into the merger, and decides whether Murdoch and sons are “fit and proper” to take ownership of Sky.
And at the ever-embattled BBC, Director General Tony Hall has arguably delivered a fair-handed result to several unenviable tasks in recent months – not least negotiating new licence fee and royal charter deals and overseeing the dismantling of BBC Trust. Originally tasked with regaining some stability and credibility to the BBC following the wake of the Savile scandal, whilst being served up drastic cost-cutting demands from the government, Hall has endured – bruised, but largely respected and with a continuing reputation as an amiable leader. Some controversial internal reorganisations, however, have raised a degree of contention towards his leadership, as has what some view as a lack of toughness in driving the BBC’s long-term strategy. In all, after nearly five years in the role, and with a number of crucial matters settled, Hall may see the timing as right to move into a less scrutinised role.
The upcoming change in media leadership marks the end of a significant generation of channel heads, an era fraught with political and industry upheaval, but which largely closes with the broadcasters in a steadier state than when their current heads arrived. This new round of appointments could present a unique opportunity for the broadcasters to introduce some crucial diversity to the upper echelons, and to make room for radical left-field thinking. Or perhaps they will simply be seeking a ‘safe pair of hands’ to see the channels into a new era. For now, all bets are off…