David Elstein’s move from BSkyB to the infant Channel 5 is one of those
bold leaps which command attention. His swift change of allegiance
genuinely makes a difference to Britain’s media industry at a time of
First of all, his loss will be sorely felt at the satellite broadcaster,
now increasingly recognised as the dominant financial force in UK
broadcasting. In three short years, Elstein had become the publicly
acceptable face of BSkyB, always ready to press Rupert Murdoch’s case,
in public and private, with beguiling charm and devastating
BSkyB has lost, not just a director of programmes, but a superb
apologist and there is nobody else in the company - where Antipodean
bluntness rules - to take his place. I have watched him in action at
dozens of influential events, most recently at the Edinburgh TV
Festival. In a series of dazzling displays, he was both able to raise
profound questions about John Birt’s plans to merge television and radio
and put Michael Grade on the spot over his misguided Channel 4 campaign,
while single-handedly holding up BSkyB’s position as a gutsy operator!
His debating skills have been invaluable to a company still testing the
boundaries of regulation: earlier this year he helped neutralise the
potential outcry over BSkyB’s ability to buy up key sports events in the
early stages of the Broadcasting Bill. These skills are already being
harnessed by Channel 5 as it argues with Government for more
Elstein’s track record as programme director of BSkyB is harder to
evaluate because the broadcaster plays by very different rules to
everyone else. It is true he spotted the potential of the X-Files but
the series was made ‘in-house’ for Murdoch’s Fox Television.
But the former current affairs producer who rose to director of
programmes at Thames TV - and helped devise two failed applications for
Channel 5 - is the only top British talent brave enough to have dared to
gain experience of satellite and purely commercial stripped schedule TV
and this range may well prove the clinching factor in the months ahead.
For Elstein has learned how to spend a modest programme budget in a
purely rational manner, to maximise certain kinds of audiences at
certain points of the day. At Channel 5 he is best placed of all the
terrestrial broadcasters to devise deals over shared programme rights
with satellite, to spread costs - a reality which Channel 4 and ITV have
been slow to recognise.
Elstein’s transfer is certainly worrying the opposition, principally
ITV. They know he is the executive best equipped to make it work as fast
as possible. And that he will bring his intellect to bear on the flaws,
even if it means recognising that retuning problems could mean the
launch is delayed.