Broadcasting boss braves business south of the Border
Group chief executive of UTV Media John McCann is confident he can make a success of its new TV channel in the Republic
TV3 is not on our agenda at all,” says John McCann, group chief executive of UTV Media. Photograph: Eric Luke
At Havelock House, a labyrinthine pink castle on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, just four men have been in charge of UTV since the late October afternoon in 1959 when Sir Laurence Olivier declared it to be his “unique privilege” to be “the first person to appear before you on Ulster Television”. The fourth of those men, in situ since 1999, is John McCann.
“Should there be more?” he asks, before revealing he had recently mulled the idea of leaving the executive car park for the final time.
“I had intended to retire earlier this year, but in fact the board asked me to stay on for a little bit longer. So I’ll stay on, I’ll get this channel up and running and then, at some stage, I’ll hand over to somebody else,” he says. There won’t be any hanging around as chairman either – he’s not a fan of that.
“This channel” is UTV. Not the old UTV, but the proposed second one, which will target audiences and advertisers in the Republic from early 2015. Two days after McCann “dropped off” UTV’s licence application in Dublin, he is back in his Belfast office, twinkly-eyed by the prospect of moving beyond the venture’s confidential “desktop research” phase.
The conversation turns to non-traditional broadcasters which have bought their way into the market by shelling out for sports rights: BT, he believes, is “brave” to spend so much, just as Sky was brave in its time.
Ah, but does he also regard UTV’s exclusive content rights deal with ITV Studios as a “brave” move? He answers, appropriately, in the language of television. “That goes back to Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, and Sir Humphrey saying to the minister or prime minister, That’s a very courageous decision’,” he says.
In other words, he hopes it isn’t a brave thing to have done – courageous decisions were synonyms for losing ones in Sir Humphrey’s lexicon – but he doesn’t know this for sure yet.
“When you go out and you spend money on rights, you always expect to be able to drive the audience. But until you actually get that audience, I suppose you don’t totally relax.”
As for the size of the audience he expects to attract via exclusive rights to programmes such as Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Loose Women, Mr Selfridge and Whitechapel, as well as its planned peak-time news hour, McCann is reticent.
“I genuinely don’t want to predict that. I mean, I have a business plan with a share in it, but I actually just don’t want to say, because it’s a hostage to fortune.”
Whatever the audience share settles at – and mid-to-high single digits seems likely – it will be an important number because it will be a proxy for the loss of business incurred by others in the market, principally RTÉ and TV3.
And no, launching the new channel is not a precursor to buying a weakened TV3. “TV3 is not on our agenda at all.”
But UTV’s advance south of the Border is perhaps a more daring move than it might seem for a company that has long captured television advertising “overspill” from the Republic and already owns six radio stations here.
The group, which is the largest publicly- quoted company in Northern Ireland and the only one of the old ITV franchises to have remained independent, has not been as active on screen under McCann’s reign as it has been on radio.
Last year, UTV earned 80 per cent of its operating profit from its radio empire, and Euro 2012 meant it even took in fractionally more revenue from its single biggest radio asset, TalkSport, than it did from the UTV channel.
On the walls of its Belfast corridors, the corporate art collection gives way to publicity posters for in-house productions such as Come Fly with Julian and Lesser Spotted Ulster.
Could Lesser Spotted Leinster be next on the slate? In truth, any indigenous production is likely to be limited. UTV tends to concentrate on news and what McCann calls “the bits and pieces” that make a channel feel more local, rather than, say, make its own drama. Not to worry.