Britain’s $4 Billion Boss: ITV Chief Carolyn McCall Bets It All on Talent

Carolyn McCall, CEO of U.K. media conglomerate ITV, doesn’t have her own office. Instead, on the open-plan top floor of ITV’s West London headquarters, she shares a desk with her executive assistant and her chief of staff. Right now, she’s sitting in a communal alcove around the corner while employees bustle past. It’s par for the course for a woman who “always wanted to be the visible leader,” as Alan Rusbridger, her former colleague at The Guardian, says.

McCall, who is being recognized as Variety’s International Media Woman of the Year in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, has made a habit of taking on the top job in the toughest of circumstances. She became chief executive at Guardian Media Group in 2006, just as the internet was blowing up the newspaper industry. Four years later, McCall joined budget airline EasyJet as CEO, then steered the multinational company through Britain’s departure from the European Union. In 2018, just as linear television was coming under assault from global streamers and social media companies, she moved to U.K.-based broadcaster and producer ITV.

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“I like working with creative people,” McCall says about her current job, which includes overseeing multiple networks, an international production business (including stakes in Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Television and Marty Adelstein’s Tomorrow Studios) and, since December, its own streaming platform, ITVX. “Nurturing creativity is very important to me because content is kind of the golden egg, right? Everything we do is about making commercial gains out of that content.”

Carolyn McCall ITV Variety Cover
Carolyn McCall ITV Variety Cover

ITV, which was launched in 1955, occupies a unique space in the media landscape and Britain more specifically. It is both a public service broadcaster and a publicly listed company with a market cap of around $4.2 billion. (By contrast, the BBC, its nearest competitor, is publicly owned.) It broadcasts sports, news, soaps, daytime and drama but is perhaps best known for its primetime entertainment, thanks in part to its long-standing relationship with Simon Cowell, with whom it has launched juggernauts including “The X Factor” and “Britain’s Got Talent.” Other breakout franchises include dating show “Love Island,” competition format “Dancing on Ice” and survival game show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!”

ITV’s USP is, simply, family-friendly content with mass market appeal. (“If we get anything less than 4 or 5 million viewers, we’re kind of like, ‘What’s gone wrong?’” McCall says.) It’s a profitable modus operandi (the 2021 season of “Love Island” reportedly generated more than $88 million in sponsorship revenue alone, a figure ITV declined to confirm) but also one that regularly puts ITV — and its talent — in the crosshairs of Britain’s merciless tabloid culture.

Last September, for instance, as the United Kingdom prepared to bury Queen Elizabeth, a uniquely British controversy erupted. A pair of ITV’s daytime anchors, Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield (the U.K.’s answer to Kelly Ripa and Ryan Seacrest), were spotted on a live feed of what appeared to be the VIP line shuffling past the queen’s coffin as she was lying in state in London. Other mourners, including Willoughby and Schofield’s ITV stablemate Susanna Reid and celebrities such as David Beckham, had queued up to 13 hours through the night to pay their respects. So the sight of Willoughby and Schofield, who host daily talk show “This Morning,” seemingly cutting the 10-mile line sent social media into a tailspin.

“This Morning” swiftly put out a statement saying that Willoughby and Schofield were accredited press and had walked past the coffin as part of a package they were broadcasting on the funeral. But the controversy continued to pick up wind, fueled by tweets, petitions and memes. At one point even Domino’s Pizza U.K. jokingly tweeted: “Apologies to anyone waiting on their pizza, we’ve just received an order from Holly and Phil,” which racked up more than 180,000 likes. As the criticism snowballed into a national news story, it became genuinely unclear whether Willoughby and Schofield’s careers would survive.

Perhaps under any other CEO they wouldn’t have. But McCall was unequivocal in her support. Not only did she reach out to Willoughby and Schofield personally by text, but she even took on the pizza company. “Because we work with Domino’s, right?” she said during a Royal Television Society fireside chat that took place just after the queen’s funeral. “We were like, ‘What are you doing?’ And they said, ‘We think it’s really funny, don’t you?’ And we said ‘No.’”

It was not the first time during McCall’s tenure at the network that she had gone to bat for her talent. Just months after her arrival at ITV, one of the network’s most popular faces, “Britain’s Got Talent” co-host Ant McPartlin, pleaded guilty to driving under the influence following a car crash. The scandal would have tanked the career of most primetime presenters, but under McCall’s leadership, McPartlin instead took a year off work, some of which was spent in rehab, before returning in early 2019.

The week before McCall sits-down with Variety it’s revealed McPartlin and his on-screen hosting partner Declan Donnelly have signed a three-year extension with ITV rumored to be worth $36 million. (ITV declined to comment on the value of the deal.) “Love Ant & Dec,” McCall says, referring to McPartlin and Donnelly’s joint moniker. “I think they’re just geniuses.” The duo are equally enthusiastic about their boss. “It is great to have someone at the helm of ITV who loves entertainment as much as we do,” they say via email. “Carolyn is a great supporter of creativity and program makers, and we look forward to another three years of working with her and the team at ITV.”

McCall’s professional loyalty is something that Rusbridger, who was editor in chief of The Guardian while McCall was CEO, is familiar with. “We were doing quite edgy, tough stuff,” Rusbridger recalls, “and we did come under a lot of attack, and I never feared for my back. I never questioned that Carolyn would be there by my side.” That’s not to say McCall isn’t prepared to take an unpopular stance when necessary. “I think she has very good judgment on when to support somebody and when, frankly, it’s best to come up with your hands up early on,” says Rusbridger.

Carolyn McCall ITV Variety Cover Story
Carolyn McCall ITV Variety Cover Story

The most public example is her clash with “Good Morning Britain” anchor Piers Morgan, who resigned from the show midbroadcast after McCall asked him to apologize for comments he had made about Meghan Markle. McCall avoids talking about Morgan as he continues to tweet about the bust-up periodically, but she is more forthcoming on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” host Jeremy Clarkson, whose recent newspaper column — also about Markle — sparked widespread condemnation, including from his own daughter. “We don’t endorse that in any way,” she says of the column, in which Clarkson wrote he dreamed of Markle being made to parade naked while crowds throw excrement at her and shout “Shame.” “There’s no place for that on ITV.”

Still, Clarkson has returned for the latest season of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which wrapped just a few weeks ago. “We’re contracted to this one,” McCall explains. “So we will do that. And then we have no future commitments, and we haven’t made any statements about that.”

Given the current climate — where one misjudged tweet is potentially enough to tank a franchise — does McCall lie awake at night worrying about what her megabucks talent might do or say next? “No,” she says flatly. “I worked for an airline; I used to worry about engine failure.” And even that she gave up eventually: “I thought there’s no point worrying about something you can’t control.”

McCall, 61, projects a quintessential Britishness, partly thanks to her cut-glass accent, delivered in soft (if occasionally steely) tones, partly because she’s a dame, having been ennobled by Queen Elizabeth in 2016 for services to the aviation industry. But the media boss only moved to the U.K. as a teenager, arriving from Bengaluru, India, with almost no cultural touchstones other than a vague knowledge of the long-running soap opera “Coronation Street,” which her mother used to watch on the family’s black-and-white TV. “When people say, ‘Where’s home?’ I only now say England,” she says.

McCall initially joined The Guardian’s marketing department as a planner before moving sideways into sales and then slowly up the ranks of GMG. After four years at the top, the exec — who had no aviation experience — was approached about the EasyJet job. “I thought it was a prank,” she says. McCall stayed at the airline for eight years before stepping down in 2017.

It was McCall’s business-to-consumer experience coupled with an instinct for innovation, that persuaded the ITV board that she was the woman to lead the company into a new era. Former ITV chair Peter Bazalgette, who first reached out to McCall about the CEO position, describes her as a “forward thinker.” In the mid 1990s, for instance, McCall and Rusbridger flew to San Francisco to learn about the then-nascent World Wide Web. (Back then, Rusbridger explains, “you had to go to America to see the internet.”) It was an experience McCall describes as “utterly transforming” and that led to the duo launching the first digital incarnation of The Guardian a few years later. “She could see the writing on the wall for traditional advertising very early on,” says Rusbridger. “She got the urgency. She got the sense of opportunity that brought as well as the sense of threat.”

Two decades later, at ITV, McCall again found herself leading a legacy company through a tech revolution: Her predecessors had been focused on the company’s production arm, but, by 2018, ITV was lagging. Linear was stagnating and streamers such as Netflix and Prime Video were swiftly evolving into global giants. “We had fallen about five years behind in direct-to-consumer streaming technology, and we were five years behind in ad tech,” says Bazalgette.

But McCall was undaunted. “I knew it was going to be very difficult to move ITV into the digital future,” she says, “but that’s the challenge for me. That’s what I love — that change and that getting people on board, setting out a clear vision, getting everyone to believe in it, consulting them as you go along and then driving it forward and executing well.”

Within two years of joining ITV, McCall had overseen the launch of Planet V, a proprietary platform that enables advertisers to target increasingly specific audiences thanks to the intimate data the platform provides. “TV has never been able to do that bit before, so it’s a much better advertising proposition,” she says.

But McCall’s “ultimate legacy,” as Jonathan Shalit, chair of U.K. management agency InterTalent Rights, points out, will be ITVX, a U.K. streaming platform that launched in December, replacing the company’s much maligned SVOD app ITV Hub.

McCall has big plans for ITVX. As well as enabling ITV to deliver a promised minimum $903 million worth of digital-only revenue by 2026, she wants it “to be the largest streamer in the U.K.” — by which McCall doesn’t mean a platform pumped full of decades-old content. “That’s not going to get you viewers, right? That’s not going to get you loyalty. It’s about fresh new stuff coming on.”

Which is why she has committed $1.6 billion to spend on content in 2023 alone, about $240 million more than business analysts had predicted. “I know the London stock market was quite surprised,” she says. “But we knew that we had to do that to make this step change. Because without that, we wouldn’t be a powerful U.K. streamer.”

While the launch of ITVX has been a success so far — the service already boasts 37 million users and, McCall says, 85% brand awareness — its timing was inauspicious, coinciding not only with a slump in the streaming market but also an industry shift from SVOD to AVOD. Suddenly Netflix and Disney+ were introducing ad-supported subscription plans, a space that ITV traditionally occupied. In terms of streaming, McCall sees the slump as more of a bump in the road. “I think it’s just kind of a correction,” she says. “I don’t think they’re going anywhere. Those big players are here to stay.” And in terms of the competition, she says ITVX is uniquely positioned. “We’re distinctively British; we commission British content, by and large.”

A prime example is “Nolly,” a new drama starring Helena Bonham Carter and written by “It’s a Sin” and “Doctor Who” showrunner Russell T. Davies. Bonham Carter plays ’80s soap star Noele Gordon, who was inexplicably booted off a real-life TV show called “Crossroads” at the height of her career. (“Essentially it’s the story of a queen who loses her crown” is how Davies pitched it at the ITVX press day.) McCall says she wasn’t convinced when ITV’s director of television, Kevin Lygo, first told her about the show. “I went, ‘“Crossroads”? No one under 40 will know what that is,’” she admits. But once Lygo persuaded her, she was all in, even offering guidance on marketing the show, which has been “a bit different to how you would market a normal drama, because you wouldn’t know from the title what ‘Nolly’ is,” she explains.

That sales instinct is another reason Bazalgette brought McCall to ITV. “Carolyn was extraordinarily understanding of advertising and marketing,” he says.

For her part, McCall credits her meteoric rise to her commercial training. “I always say, honestly, you can’t go wrong with sales and marketing,” she says. “Because I know there’s creative people who need sales and marketers. If you’re a writer, a journalist, if you’re a content producer of any kind — social or broadcast or film — you need commercial people, and sales and marketing is the best background for that.”

But with the ad market also taking a knock due to a post-pandemic global economic downturn, ITV’s share price plunged at the end of last year, although it has since bounced back somewhat. Still, a rumor emerged that McCall was considering selling off ITV Studios, the company’s production arm, which spans more than 60 labels, scripted and unscripted, worldwide — among them Quay Street Prods., which made “Nolly,” and Poison Pen Studios, set up last summer by Ben Stephenson, formerly a top executive at J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot.

McCall shoots down any hint she may be jettisoning the business or even a part of it. “ITV Studios is not for sale,” she says firmly. But the CEO acknowledges the stock market doesn’t really seem to “get” ITV Studios, given that, when it comes to production, outlay is large, return is slow and margins are generally small. But ITV is an integrated broadcaster-producer, meaning it gets multiple bites of the pie every time a show is made in-house, sold internally and then licensed externally. (“Nolly,” for example, was produced in-house, dropped on ITVX last month and will air on PBS Masterpiece in the U.S.) “I don’t think the stock market understood how the money was giving us return,” she says. “It was really accretive.”

While McCall did prune ITV Studios, particularly in the U.S., where she merged some labels and shuttered others, the plan is to continue to grow the business. Adelstein, CEO of Tomorrow Studios, which produces “Snowpiercer” and “One Piece” among other titles, says that McCall was “incredibly supportive” when he told her he wanted to expand into adult animation. “I explained to her how the market was expanding, and she looked at me and said ‘Go ahead and do it.’” They launched the adult animation label Work Friends in 2020. “I have nothing but high praise for her, as a CEO and as a human being,” Adelstein says.

McCall is equally proud of ITV’s culture, which is also a lure for potential partners. She cites natural history producer Plimsoll Prods., in which ITV took a majority stake last summer, as an example. “We were not the highest bidder, but we were their preferred owner. And that’s because of the culture.” As if to underscore the point, just a few days after her chat with Variety, McCall is planning to drive two and a half hours to Bristol, where Plimsoll is based, with her goldendoodle, Billy, so she can take part in the production company’s weekly “Bring Your Dog Friday.” (“He’s like a little teddy bear,” McCall says of the pup. “He’s really very sweet and very good-natured.”)

Crucially for McCall, ITV’s culture is one that extends to its output. “I love the commercial bit,” she says of the company. “But I also like the role we play in society, which is extremely important.”

Her altruism is something colleagues attest to. “Carolyn is a values-driven person,” Bazalgette says. “So she understands and believes in the public benefit that public service broadcasting and ITV delivers.”

McCall doesn’t see her mission as simply turning a profit for shareholders but also giving back to society via television screens, whether that means launching a healthy-eating campaign (one of her first initiatives at ITV was a child-oriented ad spot extolling the virtues of vegetables) or ensuring ITV remains a source of accurate data in an age of misinformation.

“We give connection to people; we reflect society in the U.K.,” she says. “We kind of shape society, not by preaching, not by being political, but actually just by reflecting and showing different views — showing how there are different ways of handling things.”

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