Michael Ian Grade, Baron Grade of Yarmouth, CBE (born 8 March 1943) is an English television executive and businessman. He was chairman of the BBC from 2004 to 2006 and executive chairman of ITV plc from 2007 to 2009. Since 2011, he has been a Conservative Party life peer in the House of Lords.
Grade was born into a Jewish show business family originally called Winogradsky; his father was the theatrical agent Leslie Grade and his uncles were the impresarios Lew Grade and Bernard Delfont. When he was three years old his mother left the family to conduct a relationship with wrestling commentator Kent Walton. Grade was brought up by his grandmother, and only saw his non-Jewish mother once more as an adult. He was educated at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire and St Dunstan's College in London.
Grade joined the Daily Mirror in 1960, and was a sports columnist from 1964 to 1966. By his own account (as related on Channel 4 chat show The Late Clive James), the job had been organised by his father. When Leslie Grade suffered a serious stroke in 1966, the 23-year-old Michael moved into his theatrical business. In 1969, he moved to London Management & Representation. Among the artists whom Grade represented were Morecambe and Wise (he successfully negotiated the duo's defection from ATV to BBC2 in 1968) and Larry Grayson.
Grade entered the television industry in 1973 when he joined London Weekend Television (LWT) as Deputy Controller of Programmes (Entertainment). During this time he bought the scripts of an Afro-American sitcom Good Times which had an all-black cast. Adapted as The Fosters (1976–77), it became the first British sitcom to have an entirely black cast. At LWT, Grade worked with both John Birt and Greg Dyke.
After he became Director of Programmes in 1977, Grade commissioned the series Mind Your Language, but later cancelled it. At an event at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1985, he agreed that the series was racist, and said that "it was really irresponsible of us to put it out". In what was termed 'Snatch of the Day' by the press in 1978, Grade attempted the acquisition of exclusive screening rights to Football League matches. Previously the BBC had held the more desirable rights, but the Office of Fair Trading intervened, and Grade's purchase was revoked. The package of recorded highlights on Saturday evenings now alternating each season between ITV and the BBC.
Also in 1978, Grade managed to place under contract the entertainer Bruce Forsyth who had helped the BBC to dominate the Saturday evening television ratings through the decade via The Generation Game series. His new vehicle was titled Bruce Forsyth's Big Night and was intended to feature all his talents in one programme lasting two hours. The budget was £2million for a fourteen-week run. The new series was considered a disaster, with the press turning against the host, but did achieve an initial audience of 14 million. The Generation Game, with new host Larry Grayson, managed to achieve a larger audience. LWT's Big Night was not re-commissioned.
Grade announced at a press conference in May 1979 that LWT had secured a contract with a production company formed by television dramatist Dennis Potter and his producer Kenith Trodd. The corporate association proved short-lived, with both sides having insufficient experience for budgeting drama shot on film, and was terminated by Grade in the summer of 1980. Only three of what had been projected as six filmed plays by Potter were shot and screened. Grade though, was directly involved with some of the playwright's later commissions.
Grade approved production of The Professionals and initiated the long-running arts' programme The South Bank Show.
In 1981, Grade left LWT to begin a two-year period as the president of Embassy Television in the United States. In The Times he was quoted as stating, "It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; it is, if you like, a gamble I want to take". His pay rose from £32,000 to $250,000 per annum. During this time he was largely involved in developing and selling sitcoms in this period: "When you read 30 or 40 comedy scripts a week, you get a bit barking." Grade produced for the only time in his career his only series, a nine-part adaptation of Kane and Abel, the novel by Jeffrey Archer. In a Jewish Chronicle interview with Michael Freedland in 2011, Grade said he had "missed public service broadcasting, real drama, news, current affairs".
Grade joined BBC Television in 1984 as Controller of BBC 1, taking "the biggest pay cut in history" he told Michael Freedland; his salary went down from $500,000, excluding large bonuses to £37,000 a year. Later he became Director of Programmes in 1986, and Managing Director Designate in 1987. His tenure as Controller was rocky.
Grade cancelled Dallas while fighting Thames Television for the rights to the series (although this decision was subsequently reversed). He cut short the expensive serialisation of The Tripods trilogy, written by John Christopher, because he was dissatisfied with the ratings it had achieved after two seasons. He also considered cancelling the sitcom Blackadder, judging the first series to be unfunny. In exchange for renewing Blackadder, he required that it become a wholly studio-based production on a lower budget.
Grade agreed the BBC should make Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective (1986) after a brief meeting with Jonathan Powell, then the BBC's Head of Drama. It was a highlight of this period, but came under criticism from Mary Whitehouse and the tabloid press for its content. Referring to the depiction of an illicit sexual encounter in Episode Three, Grade said: "There are very few people in television drama that you are prepared to trust with scenes like this. But Dennis Potter is one of them".
During his time as Controller, Grade was also responsible for purchasing the Australian soap opera Neighbours for BBC1's new daytime schedule; it debuted on British television on 27 October 1986. He was also responsible for repeating Neighbours, at first exclusively an afternoon programme, in a later timeslot (on the advice of his daughter, Alison, who was annoyed that she could not watch it due to her being at school). This proved to be a successful scheduling decision, with audiences in excess of 18 million for the new 5.35 pm broadcasts. Other successes during Grade's tenure included the debut of soap operas EastEnders and Howards' Way, and the broadcast of the charity rock concert Live Aid.
Doctor Who controversy
It was announced in February 1985 that the next series of Doctor Who, scheduled to run from January 1986, would be postponed as Grade had decided that the programme's budget would be better spent on other drama productions. What became an 18-month hiatus for Doctor Who (the series did not resume until September 1986) prompted a strong reaction from viewers. In an interview in 2004, Grade said of the series: "I thought it was horrible, awful. I thought it was so outdated. It was just a little show for a few pointy head Doctor Who fans. It was also very violent and it had lost its magic". In an appearance on the BBC's Room 101 in 2002, Grade chose the series as one of his hates, criticised its production values and admitted that he had little interest in, or sympathy for, science fiction.
Eric Saward, the script editor of Doctor Who at the time of its suspension, responded to Grade's criticism a few years later. In his view, Grade's comments were unfair because he was in the position to allocate more resources to the programme and thus improve its quality. However, actress Katy Manning, who had portrayed an assistant of Jon Pertwee's Doctor, praised Grade's treatment of the series on the DVD commentary for The Mind of Evil. In her view, Grade "was actually doing the right thing", and she credited the long break with rejuvenating the series.
In 1986, Grade decided to fire actor Colin Baker from the title role of Doctor Who. Years later he explained that he thought Baker's portrayal of the Doctor was "utterly unlikeable; absolutely God-awful in fact".
Following the end of the first series of the revived Doctor Who in 2005, he wrote a letter to Mark Thompson, the BBC Director General, congratulating all involved in the production on its success, signing-off with "PS never dreamed I would ever write this. Must be going soft!" In an interview for the Radio Times in 2012, Grade commented: "From clunky Daleks that couldn't go up and down stairs to the filmic qualities today of Doctor Who, it's a transformation... The show still leaves me cold, but I admire it, which I never did before."
Grade accepted the post of chief executive of Channel 4, succeeding Jeremy Isaacs, and taking up his post at the beginning of 1988. It was a decision which led Isaacs to criticise the appointment and to threaten to "throttle" Grade if the nature of the Channel was altered.
He phased out some of its more high-brow programming, for which he was accused of "dumbing down"; Grade retorted that in the same week that he moved to Channel 4, it had shown a repeat of the 1984 adaptation of The Far Pavilions, featuring American actress Amy Irving "blacked up" as an Indian princess. During this period, he was also attacked by the conservative press: Daily Mail columnist Paul Johnson dubbed him Britain's "pornographer-in-chief".
Grade was successful in developing the station at a time when Channel 4 was obliged to award a proportion of its advertising revenue to the rival ITV network. In addition to securing talent from the BBC, he recognised the improving quality of US television output, making series such as Friends and ER the mainstays of the channel's schedule. Grade became involved in a dispute with Chris Morris regarding the satire Brass Eye after repeatedly intervening in the production to order edits to various episodes, and re-scheduling some instalments for sensitivity.
Grade left Channel 4 in 1997 to head First Leisure Corporation, He departed two years later, following a substantial internal re-structuring, to return to the media industry as chairman of the new Pinewood and Shepperton Film Studios Company.
Return to the BBC
Grade was on the board of the poorly received Millennium Dome project, and has served as chairman of Octopus Publishing, the Camelot Group, and Hemscott (a position that he intends to relinquish).
He had ambitions to become Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors in 2001, but was beaten to the post by Gavyn Davies. Following Davies' resignation in the aftermath of the Hutton Inquiry report, it was announced on 2 April 2004 that Grade had been appointed BBC Chairman; his only demand was that he would not have to give up his job as a director of Charlton Athletic F.C. He took up his post on 17 May.
On 19 September 2006, Grade became non-executive chairman of online food delivery company Ocado. He resigned from the role on 23 January 2013, after which he was replaced by Sir Stuart Rose.
On 28 November 2006, Grade and the BBC confirmed that he was to resign from his position within the corporation to replace Sir Peter Burt as Chairman, and Charles Allen as Chief Executive, of one of the companies forming part of its commercial rival, ITV. He became Executive Chairman of ITV plc on 8 January 2007.
During Grade's tenure, ITV has struggled with falling advertising revenue and viewing figures. Upon appointment, Grade announced that his first priority would be to work as a senior partner at ITV Network Limited to improve ITV programming, as well as strengthen its digital channels, ITV2, ITV3, ITV4 and CITV. On 12 September 2007, Grade announced a controversial five-year re-structuring plan for ITV plc-owned regions, selecting entertainment as the top priority. A major overhaul of ITV plc's regional structure was also proposed. The plans would result in the consolidation of the ITV regional news programmes in England, with regions now broadcasting a single service per region rather than multiple, specialised, local services (for example, ITV Yorkshire would no longer broadcast in separate Northern and Southern regions). They would also merge fully ITV Border with ITV Tyne Tees, and ITV West with ITV Westcountry, effectively ending two regions' tenure as independent players within ITV; the proposals have been criticised by BECTU and the National Union of Journalists. Any such changes would be subject to approval by Ofcom.
In March 2009, Grade initiated libel action against another television executive, Greg Dyke, and The Times newspaper over allegations of improper conduct made by Dyke about Grade, relating to his move from the BBC to ITV in 2006. The newspaper subsequently withdrew the allegations and published an apology, admitting that the allegations had no justification.
On 23 April 2009, Grade announced he would be stepping down as chief executive to become non-executive chairman at the conclusion of regulatory reviews into advertising contract rights and digital TV, at some point before the end of 2009.
Grade was appointed a CBE in 1998. That same year, he published his autobiography, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, and married his third wife, Francesca Leahy; they have a son, Gregory.
He was previously married to Penelope Jane Levinson (1967–81; she is now the wife of writer and historian Sir Max Hastings), by whom he has two children, and Sarah Lawson (1982–91), a film producer.
Grade is a fan of Charlton Athletic F.C.
Grade revealed his membership of the Conservative Party for the first time in May 2010. On 25 January 2011, he was created a life peer, as Baron Grade of Yarmouth, of Yarmouth in the County of Isle of Wight. He was introduced in the House of Lords on 27 January and sits as a Conservative.