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Thompson takes the helm at C4

UPDATED - As expected, Mark Thompson, the BBC's director of television and Greg Dyke's number two at the corporation, is to become the fourth chief executive of Channel 4 following the recent departure of Michael Jackson to Sci-Fi channel owner USA Networks.

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The decision follows a two-interview process -- by a panel headed up by Channel 4 chairman Vanni Treves, with the help of managing director David Scott, director of programmes Phil Gardam and director of strategy David Brook -- which kicked off in early October.

The final phase was a Channel 4 board meeting yesterday in which the board met the recommended candidate. It is thought the job was formally offered to Thompson last night and that he has been locked in negotiations at the BBC about fulfilling contractual obligations before he can move to his new post.

Since the race for the £500,000-a-year post at Channel 4 began, an ever-changing list of hopefuls -- including Channel 5 chief executive Dawn Airey, Planet 24 founder Lord Waheed Alli and TV producer Peter Bazalgette -- has been bandied about the industry. Thompson's name however, is one that has remained from the beginning.

Although the choice of Thompson is not a complete surprise, it is certainly a controversial one for two reasons.

Thompson is expected to challenge Dyke for the post of director general of the BBC in 2004 when Dyke's contract expires. Thompson, who has been at the BBC for his entire career, is widely believed to be taking the Channel 4 role to add the final string to his bow, which will give him the scope to make him a worthy opponent to Dyke. If that is the case, then Channel 4 is nothing more than a stepping stone for Thompson.

The second reason is that Thompson is expected to want to make sweeping changes at Channel 4, which would likely be opposed by the channel's senior management, three of whom -- Scott, Gardam and Brooks -- were involved in the selection process.

The final reason is Thompson's lack of experience in the commercial sector, having spent his 22-year career at the BBC. It is accepted that he understands TV, but there is uncertainty about his ability to run a business.

The appointment comes at a crucial time for the channel, which has had a fairly rocky leadership since Jackson quit in July. At the same time, Treves has had his work cut out trying to pull together a package that will save troubled insurance firm Equitable Life -- the other company of which he is chairman -- from collapse at a time when Channel 4 needed his full attention.

These factors are compounded by the advertising downturn the commercial TV industry is struggling through, and the fact that Channel 4 has had to make its first job cuts since it launched in 1988.

However, Thompson will no doubt please Jackson's critics, who were dismayed when he boosted the channel's ratings by importing a raft of US comedy series such as Friends, Ally McBeal, The West Wing and Frasier.

Those who believe Channel 4 should provide ground-breaking drama, investigative documentaries and all-round intellectual programming, will undoubtedly be pleased that a second chief executive -- the first being Michael Grade -- with a background in public service broadcasting is back at the top of the company.

Born in London, Thompson, who is 44, was educated at Oxford and joined the BBC in 1979 as a trainee researcher. He helped with the launch of Watchdog in 1981 and Breakfast Time in 1983 and also worked on London Plus, before becoming an output editor on Newsnight in 1985.

He was appointed editor of the Nine O'Clock News in 1988 and editor of Panorama in 1990. He became head of features in 1992 and head of factual programmes in 1994, playing a key role in the successful performance of both BBC TV channels and introducing series such as Animal Hospital, Modern Times and The House.

As controller of BBC 2 from 1996 to 1998, he saw the channel retain its share of viewing at a time of increased competition, with the introduction of memorable series such as This Life, The Royle Family and The League of Gentlemen. He is married with three children.

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