Ad-man to TV honcho: Can Russel Howcroft turn Channel Ten’s fortunes?

Ad-man to TV honcho: Can Russel Howcroft turn Channel Ten’s fortunes?

Most readers will know him as a regular panellist on The Gruen Transfer, but Russel Howcroft now has a new role, and it’s not in advertising.

The current chief executive of the Australia-New Zealand arm of global ad agency Young & Rubicam Brands will in February take up an executive managing director position at the ailing Channel 10.

The company isn’t losing talent by appointing Howcroft. James Warburton was appointed as both managing director and CEO in January. He’ll continue in just the CEO role.

Howcroft is an unusual appointment. Advertising and television are certainly related industries, but they aren’t the same. And there are huge differences between running a listed television network and running the Asia-Pacific arm of a privately-owned marketing agency. Howcroft will bring his contacts and marketing expertise to the free-to-air television channel, but he’ll be responsible for far more than its ad sales.

Ten, whose board brings together high-profile personalities such as casino mogul James Packer, mining billionaire Gina Rinehart and Fairfax director and Hungry Jack’s founder Jack Cowin, has struggled in recent months. A recent audience survey released earlier this week had Ten lagging the ABC with only 10.3% of viewers. The publicly-funded broadcaster managed 13.5%, while market leader Seven secured 24.9% of audiences, followed by Nine with 20.4%. Ten’s poor showing has been blamed on a series of bad programing decisions, with hyped shows such as Being Lara Bingle and The Shire not striking a chord with viewers or critics.

On the revenue side, Ten’s share of the free-to-air advertising market is about 23%. This is below its 28% target – a yearly shortfall of $150 million dollars.

The precedent

Howcroft’s appointment hasn’t been the most surprising in TV-land this year. It was wildly rumoured ahead of the announcement, and in terms of cross-industry leaps, nothing beats Channel Seven’s appointment of oil and gas executive Don Volte to replace long-time CEO David Leckie. He wasn’t the first unusual appointment in the industry. Rival Channel Nine flirted with sports commentator Eddie McGuire as its chief in 2006. Following a series of unpopular programing decisions, the Sydney tabloids started calling him the ‘P-plated CEO’. He lasted just over a year in the position.

Many companies undergoing rapid change have had their unusual CEO choices come back to bite them, as executives failed to recognise and act quickly on industry-wide changes.

Former Woolworths chief executive Roger Corbett has had a lot to contend with at Fairfax Media, but if we go by the decline in share price during his tenure as Fairfax’s chairman, we can conclude he’s so far failed to position the company for the digital age. At Billabong, chairman Ted Kunkel originally came from the beer industry, having been the chief at Foster’s chief before his appointment. The surfwear retailer’s profits have eroded in recent years, and in June Kunkel tendered his resignation as new CEO Launa Ingman announced a capital raising.

Perhaps stories like this are why companies in difficult straits often avoid unusual executive appointments.

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