Seeing U

By Colm O'Rourke

For the past decade, Ulster Television was regarded as the last outpost in UK television for an abandoned broadcasting practice: having its announcing staff appear on camera to introduce the next programme and promote shows later in the day's, or week's, schedule. To be precise, in-vision continuity.

In the case of UTV, in-vision continuity predominantly with one particular individual. Whether you regard Julian Simmons as the preservation of a bygone era of broadcasting or a cringeworthy throwback to an outdated time and place, his status as an in-vision announcer provided him with unique status in a modern British broadcasting landscape. In recent times, industrial developments at his employers have eroded that unique status. Simmons is no longer the station's sole in-vision continuity announcer; for the first time in a decade, the core announcing staff all make on-screen appearances while on continuity duty.

The catalyst in UTV's increased use of in-vision continuity has coincided with the return of two familiar faces to its announcing staff. The re-appointments of Pamela Ballantine and Rose Neill to the station's presentation department could possibly have been interpreted as retrogressive, or even demotion in some quarters.

Ballantine has been employed at Ulster Television since 1983, after gaining initial broadcasting experience at Downtown Radio and BBC Radio Ulster. Her career in television began as a relief continuity announcer and newsreader at Havelock House, and in time, she eventually developed a career presenting UTV-produced series, including "Farming Ulster" and "Ulster Schools Quiz". By the early 1990s, Ballantine had become the main cover for regular female anchor Kate Smith on UTV's evening news magazine, "Six Tonight", and with the relaunch of the channel's local news under the "UTV Live" brand at the start of 1993, Ballantine made a permanent move from continuity duties to the news department as a fully-fledged presenter of the now hour-long main evening news bulletin.

In 1999, Ballantine's presenting duties changed focus from politics and current affairs to arts and features, as she became a main co-anchor of "UTV Life", a daily half-hour magazine spun off from the hour-long "UTV Live at Six" to accommodate the network's rescheduling of ITN programming. Ballantine remained co-host for the entire run of the series, which was axed in 2009 after a corporate decision to implement cutbacks in the news department. These cutbacks included a voluntary redundancy package for almost all newsroom staff; Ballantine was offered such a package, or the opportunity of internal redeployment as a continuity announcer. She took the latter option, and returned to announcing duties in May 2009.

Neill's broadcasting career also began at Ulster Television. She co-hosted a children's educational series, "Hop, Skip and Jump", in 1977, and joined the station's presentation department in 1980. Neill moved "up the road" to BBC Northern Ireland in 1985, appearing as a news presenter on "Inside Ulster" and "BBC Newsline" until her contract at Broadcasting House was terminated in 2008. Since leaving the Corporation, Neill has worked as a freelance broadcaster, and recommenced her announcing career in June 2009.

The augmentation of Ballantine and Neill in the presentation department at UTV has enabled another staff announcer to resurface before the camera between the programmes. Gillian Porter, who joined UTV in 1993 on the cusp of its banishing of "Ulster Television" branding, gained in-vision continuity experience in her early years at the station. However, the increased emphasis on promotion via programme trails led to a decline in Porter's appearances on screen during programme junctions; her on-screen duties became confined to reading news bulletins. July 2009 saw Porter make a return to in-vision announcing.

On reflection, UTV's decision to extend the option of in-vision continuity to its other presentation staff appears to affirm the station's commitment to providing the service to its viewers. Given how the potential plight of Ballantine and Neill's broadcasting careers was reported in the regional press, to a majorly sympathetic reaction, one could also interpret UTV's decision as a concession to keep their audience happy by allowing established and appreciated local broadcasters announce on camera, rather than be forced to hide behind the panoramic landscapes of UTV's current ident package.

UTV themselves are no longer the only British broadcaster who make use of in-vision continuity these days. BBC ALBA viewers are privileged with links with an on-camera presenter; but with the present financial circumstances of the Corporation, it's hard to judge if the in-vision trend on the Gaelic service will follow recent usage on BBC Three in eventual abandonment. However, with experienced and popular presenting staff live on duty every evening and at weekends - but still not during the day, I sigh - the future of in-vision continuity on UTV appears reinvigorated and more robust.

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Article ©2010 Colm O'Rourke

Compilation ©2010 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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