Making the Grade: broadcasting supremo reveals all

MICHAEL Grade doesn t look like someone who has just announced his resignation. Flicking his eyes between two computer screens and typing furiously in his elegant office overlooking central London, the chief executive chairman of ITV who has also headed u

MICHAEL Grade doesn't look like someone who has just announced his resignation.

Flicking his eyes between two computer screens and typing furiously in his elegant office overlooking central London, the chief executive chairman of ITV who has also headed up the BBC and Channel 4 looks rushed off his trademark red-socked feet rather than ready to put them up.

It is only an hour since the news broke that Grade was calling time on his tenure running ITV - becoming non-executive chairman instead - yet the self-confessed workhorse insists he will be happy to hand over the reins at the end of the year.

"Originally, when I was booked it was for three years in the dual role," he says. "The board asked me to extend a year while we sorted a few things out but a lot of those things are now clear and, unfortunately, I'm not getting any younger, so it makes sense to split the roles earlier than we expected.

"We've got all kinds of big decisions to make - we've now got a timetable on regulatory issues that are far reaching and the next CEO has to have ownership of those decisions."

When I ask him if he'll miss it, he laughs: "No, no - it's exhausting. I'm still going to be here as non-executive director so I'll still keep my hand in. I've got a full dance card - I'm chairman of Ocado and Pinewood Studios. I'm not looking for more work."

Most Read

Which is lucky, since Grade would be hard pushed to find a job in broadcasting to which he hasn't already turned his hand.

Regarded as one of the most charismatic and resilient characters in television, his 40-year career includes spells as managing director of the BBC, chief executive of Channel 4 and back to chairman of the BBC before departing for ITV in early 2007.

Shows introduced to the popular consciousness at his say-so include Neighbours, the South Bank Show, EastEnders, Panorama and Friends. He aired Live Aid in 1985 and was lambasted as Pornographer in Chief when he put shows like Eurotrash and The Word on late-night Channel 4. His latest success includes airing Simon Cowell's stable of reality shows, yet even with his exceptional experience some notable hits have slipped through Grade's grasp.

"My biggest mistake ever in terms of looking at a programme and saying it's not for us was the X Files when I was at Channel 4," he recalls.

"We said, 'This will never run - it's complete garbage,' which shows you how wrong you can be. The pilot wasn't that good and the series improved but that was a terrible mistake. In the end we don't decide what's a hit, the audience decides."

Indeed, Grade's personal favourites are the slick American shows Mad Men and Desperate Housewives over on Channel 4, but his mandate for ITV will continue to be home-grown shows such as The Bill and Coronation Street.

"We provide British audiences with British shows that they identify with and they prefer those shows," Grade explains.

"When I first came into broadcasting there were a lot of American shows in prime time and they don't work any more.

"Mad Men has a very rarefied narrow appeal in the same way, I suppose as The Economist doesn't sell as many copies as Hello.

"For the commercial sector you do what gets the best return for your shareholders, basically. We are not in the business of doing good works - we're in the business of entertaining the British public to the best of our ability."

The channel's current darling is Britain's Got Talent. And Grade, unsurprisingly given the show pulled in 10million viewers for its launch, isn't immune to its draw.

"I would have to say that Britain's Got Talent is the best produced entertainment show I've ever seen on British television in terms of production value," he enthuses.

"I am in awe of that show - I love the show as a viewer but also as a professional watching how it's put together. To hear everyone talking about it and Susan Boyle getting 100million hits on YouTube is just so exciting."

The Grade household, like many others across the country, has debated the sudden success of Boyle - the 47-year-old who blew judges and a worldwide audience away with her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables.

"Yes, Susan Boyle is exceptionally talented - she's got a divine instrument but so have lots of people - what chord has she struck?

"My wife came up with an interesting thing. She said, 'Look, everybody, every human being has a bit of them that they feel has not been recognised. Everyone's saying if there is a chance for her, there is a chance one day I might get recognised.' There's that little bit of us where we think actually if they only knew I was good at this - we all have it."

For Grade, his Susan Boyle moment would see him cast as an orchestra conductor.

"My dream is to get on Maestro, the BBC programme," he laughs. "I was gutted when I saw that show and they hadn't asked me to do it. I would have taken a year off to do that - it is my enduring ambition and it will never be realised.

"I also love the theatre - if I ever retire I may take an interest in the theatre somewhere."

Being maestro of ITV hasn't always been easy listening for Grade - 1,600 jobs have so far been cut to deal with the recession and Grade himself took a �1million drop in pay last year.

Grade, who comes from an entertainment dynasty that includes uncle Lew Grade, who effectively co-founded the channel, says ITV still has a strong future as "the nation's favourite source of free entertainment".

But he admits no-one can rule out further job losses.

"You tell me what the advertising market is going to be like in three months' time and I will give you an answer," he says.

"Obviously, we've done everything we can but we'll just have to see what happens with the market - whether we are at the bottom or whether there is further to go we'll have to see. Nobody knows."

One headline Grade didn't foresee as a result of the recession arrived last week when it was revealed he was suing The Times over a piece by former colleague Greg Dyke.

Dyke wrote a scathing piece criticising Grade and his handling of ITV during the recession.

Speaking about the case for the first time, Grade says it is something he believes he has to do to protect his reputation.

"I have never sued anybody in my life and I've had lots of opportunity," he says. "But I and my family - my father and my two uncles, although they've all gone now - have had an enduring reputation for probity, integrity and honesty.

"I feel a huge responsibility to maintain that. You can call me anything you like - say I'm ugly or past it - but don't tell me that I've behaved in a way that's not correct.

"I love Greg, he's an old mate and I've worked with him since he was a baby researcher at London Weekend, but your reputation is all you have.

"My reputation for fair dealing, honest dealing and straightforward integrity is precious to me and those issues I am very sensitive about. It is a family thing and that's why I feel so strongly about it."

Family is the main motivation behind Grade's appearance in Golders Green next Thursday. The broadcaster will take to the stage of the London Jew sh Cultural Centre (LJCC) to pay his respects to his Jewish ancestors.

"I look back and I think of my grandmother who came over from the Ukraine with a sick husband and two little boys under her arms," he says.

"She travelled to the East End of London and they worked their socks off - Britain was very good to them. They created businesses, they made my life comfortable and I am very proud of that.

"I think about it quite a lot. Where does it come from that decision that says, 'OK, we're living in a one up, one down, terraced hovel in the East End, we don't have a - pardon my French - pot to piss in but we ain't going to stay here long, we are going to fight our way up?'

"Would I have been able to do what they did? I don't think so. Their work ethic was just phenomenal. It is why I get up every morning early and work as hard as I do still, at the age of 67. I feel that motivation from my family. They did it, I better do it. The Jewish Cultural Centre to me is another way of recognising that."

And it's a lesson Grade feels he should pass on to his children: "I don't care what they do - but they have to go to work and that's all you can teach your kids.

"It shouldn't be, you should be a brain surgeon or a lawyer, but get out of bed, go to work and do something that makes you happy.

"My dad always said to me, if it makes you happy, do it. I am very lucky I'm in this business because I love every minute of it."

Even, it seems, the minutes after he's resigned.

o Michael Grade will be in conversation with TV producer Sue Summers at the LJCC on Thursday May 7 at 8pm. For tickets visit or telephone 020-8457 5000.