Treading water 

1 October 2005 tbs.pm/2080

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Russ J Graham’s article on Ulster Television, Walking a tightrope, in the Top Ten section of our ITV50 supplement raised some comments, not least from a long-serving member of the media industry working in the region, who felt that we failed to do Northern Ireland’s ITV contractor justice. We don’t have a party line at Transdiffusion, and we’re always happy to air a contrary view. Our correspondent therefore kindly contributed this alternative view of Ulster Television.

Since 1959, Ulster Television has been the ITV contractor for Northern Ireland, though it has also had the benefit of many viewers in the Republic of Ireland. It’s never been a high-budget operation, providing very few programmes for the ITV network, but has offered an exemplary local news service for the past 46 years. And that has always been the key to its success. The people of Northern Ireland have a huge appetite for news – hardly surprising given the years of political turmoil and politically-inspired violence the province has suffered. Gloria Hunniford and Eamonn Holmes both made their names presenting Good Evening, Ulster in the 1970s and 80s. But while the mainstay of its local output has been news, if there is one thing people in Northern Ireland love just as much, it’s soap. Coronation Street and Emmerdale can frequently get higher share figures in Northern Ireland than in Manchester or Yorkshire!

Rising on the back of network programming, and linking all this together from morning to night over the years, was a team of in-vision presenters – armed only with a copy of the TV Times – the longest-serving of them being Julian Simmons, whose camp introductions to Coronation Street having been a local legend for many years.

Presentation-wise, things were always rather basic. The occasional strange colourful wipe would be employed by enthusiastic vision mixers when the mood took them, but otherwise the most memorable presentation device was the silver revolving ‘lolly on a stick’ Ulster Television logo. It was created to celebrate the channel’s 25th anniversary in 1984, but embarrassingly remained on air for 5 years, accompanied by a jingle that could only be described (at best) as mildly irritating.

Telefis Éireann may have gone on air in 1961, but it was 1978 before their second service launched. As a result, the people of the Republic of Ireland developed a penchant for huge aerials and masts on their houses to provide them with a wider televisual choice. Enormous poles, guy ropes and cables were fixed dangerously to many a roof to receive programmes from the BBC and Ulster Television. Despite the large number of viewers from the Republic, Ulster Television remained stoically dedicated to its audience north of the border and never exploited the advertising potential that lay (slightly) further afield.

In 1993, realising it was perhaps missing marketing (and money-making) opportunities, Ulster Television became exclusively referred to on-air as UTV. The UTV brand wasn’t new – UTV Reports had been the name of the main evening news programme for many a year – but until then the channel’s branding had always been “Ulster Television” both visually and verbally. So, with the lolly-on-a-stick logo consigned to being an office door-stop, and a load of money thrown at marketing and presentation, a slick new look was unveiled, theoretically opening its arms to anyone outside of the province who was watching – or, more to the point, advertising. The presentation during this period was as professional as it ever looked.

We should mention at this point the little known ‘TV-You’, watched by literally tens of viewers. This was a secondary service replacing ITV2 on digital terrestrial television in Northern Ireland, appearing at the launch of the ill-fated ON Digital service in 1998. To describe this service as ‘shoe-string’ would be to elevate normal shoe-strings to the status of luxury items beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It was only created to stake a claim on bandwidth on the NI digital transmitters and was thankfully scrapped when agreement with ITV was reached to UTV’s financial benefit.

In recent years, while the news service has remained well-funded and comprehensive, an apparent drive for ever-increasing profits has taken its toll on the output. It’s hard today to find local programming in the channel’s schedule, and in terms of presentation, a clumsy mish-mash of ITV network jingles and cheap local idents lets the side down. In-vision announcers only appear on Friday and Saturday nights, and outside peak hours there are no announcers at all. During the day announcer-less UTV idents freely run, and overnight a sustaining feed from the ITV Network Centre is put to air, again with no announcer. That said, it can’t be easy trying to lay the UTV brand over the ITV1 material, but overall the presentation appears to lack effort, direction and funding.

The criticisms must be countered with the important fact that it has been a very successful business for its shareholders who must – like the rest of us – be wondering why ITV plc hasn’t bought out the independent television company operating in this little corner of the United Kingdom. In the Republic, UTV runs in competition with TV3, which is part owned by – you guessed it – ITV plc, with schedules that have more than a passing resemblance to each other. This is almost certainly the reason that UTV has not been made available to the Republic’s satellite viewers, a situation that will soon change with the move by ITV to free-to-air broadcasting.

People in other parts of the UK, whose once-mighty regional television companies have been subsumed into the ITV brand, are often heard to fête UTV as one of the last bastions of ‘proper’ local broadcasting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really have that feel any more. I suspect local management are themselves surprised by the fact that they are still there. Certainly the output looks and feels tired, and lacking in effort. Are they simply treading water until ITVplc steps in? Well, it certainly seems they are preparing themselves for such an eventuality. With a growing portfolio of radio stations across the UK and Republic of Ireland, and having bought out the Wireless Group (owner of the national TalkSport station), they appear to be setting their sights on a future out-of-vision.

U105, the latest radio station owned by UTV and aimed at over-45s in the Greater Belfast area, goes on air on the 14th November 2005 from studios at the company’s Ormeau Road headquarters.

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