Switched on: how Mary Curtis became the most senior woman in Irish TV
‘Maybe it was my mid-life crisis,’ says UTV Ireland’s head of channel about her move from RTÉ. She talks changing audiences, office politics and the likely Irish output of the new channel, which will begin broadcasting in January
Mary Curtis: ‘A lot of people record their programmes now. The challenge is to monetise that. It’s difficult, because people zip through the ads.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
UTV Ireland is based in Macken House in Dublin, just behind the O2. The big windows on the ground floor are closed off with paper. The reception area is deserted; a builder’s hard hat sits on the desk. Mary Curtis is in an office upstairs that is not her own; she doesn’t know who it belongs to. She doesn’t start as head of channel with the new television station, UTV Ireland, until September. “I just wanted change,” she says. “I like change.”
UTV Ireland appeared on the media landscape quite suddenly. In an industry that runs on rumour, there had been no talk about it. “Normally you hear whispers,” says Curtis.
She left RTÉ in August 2013. “A lot of people thought I was crazy,” she says with a smile. “Maybe it was my mid-life crisis.” She was thinking about what to do next when she got a call from UTV. “They asked could they meet me. It was literally the last thing I expected.”
UTV was looking for someone who, as she puts it, “knows the landscape”. She will be commissioning home-produced programmes, which must make up 10per cent of UTV Ireland’s schedule. Commissioning doesn’t start until the station goes on air in January. Neither Curtis nor UTV Ireland will indicate what the budget for independent commissions is, but it won’t be big. “But I would push as hard as I can,” she says. News programming comes out of that 10 per cent figure, and there will be 1½ hours of news a day.
As well as acquiring Coronation Street and Emmerdale – which currently show on TV3 – in May, the new station acquired the rights to Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War and a lot of other mainstream programming. So, we might say a stall has been set out for the over-40s?
“Yes,” says Curtis with admirable clarity. “Yes, yes it has.”
At a briefing for independent producers, who were shown extracts from UTV’s most successful programmes, including Lesser Spotted Ulster and Rare Breed: A Farming Year, producer David Collins asked if there were any young people in Northern Ireland. But UTV is not shy about its core audience, or anything else. Curtis describes its chief executive, John McCann, as “very easy to deal with, but they all are”.
She says the schedule at UTV Ireland will mirror the TV schedule of UTV in the North, but with a different look and a different feel supplied by some of the home-produced content. Presumably, for the moment at least, that means the news.
A careful choice
UTV has made a careful choice with Curtis. She was steeped in RTÉ for almost 20 years. She oversaw Saorview, the transition to digital, which was regarded as a big success. In addition, she says, “I’d done a lot of work on the last five-year strategy. I had to look at everything from target audiences to the orchestras.”
She talks about changing viewing habits: “A lot of people record their programmes now. The challenge is to monetise that in some shape or form. It’s difficult, because people zip through the ads.”
She arrived in RTÉ having worked previously as a primary school teacher. “I wouldn’t get into television now,” she says. She worked as a researcher, mainly on The Late Late Show. She trained as a producer in the same year as the current director general, Noel Curran. She had her three children: Ben (14), Kate (12) and Max (7). She managed as a working mother of small children, she says, by virtue of good maternity leave and luck. She and her husband, Jim Duggan, who owns the post-production facilities house Screen Scene, live in Donnybrook, near to their work. “We have very good neighbours and I’d be quite organised. Also, they’re good kids.”
A fast climb of the ladder
She is honest enough to say that the higher up the corporate ladder you are, the more you can be spared from having to be physically present at work. She moved up that ladder quite quickly, being appointed deputy head of television in 2002.
The most surprising thing about her RTÉ career is that she left. And she can’t really explain why. “It was very sad to leave somewhere I thought I grew up and have lots of friends. There was no obvious thing for me to do for the next four years. And as I grow older, if I’m going to work, it has to be something I’m passionate about. I have to feel engaged and committed.”
She points out that moving between channels is common in other countries, although in Ireland it is most unusual.
Her new appointment makes her the most senior woman in Irish television. Why are there so few women in top television management – or top newspaper management, for that matter?
She shifts in her chair. “There are women executives,” she says. “A lot are executive producers, commissioning editors. It’s a big commitment for a man or a woman to put themselves forward. It’s complex. To do it you need to have the desire, to be politically up for it.”
When pushed further, she says there are office politics in any job, and you can immediately see how very good at office politics she must be, when many women are not. I had read somewhere that the quality male executives value most in female executives is calmness; presumably they feel they get enough emotion at home. Curtis seems very calm, and always has.
“I am very calm, yes,” she says. “As you grow older, you learn tolerance and to be much more respectful. Life is complicated and life is big. Within a workplace, to be calm, to be respectful, is important.”
She is the eldest of nine children, which she thinks might explain her calmness. She grew up in Tinryland in rural Co Carlow. Her mother was a primary-school teacher and her father started his own business importing machinery. She attended the local primary school, where her mother and her aunt were teachers. “Yeah, it was awful,” she says with a hint of a smile. She gave a talk at her old school, she says, and made the point that there is nothing wrong with ambition. Ambitious girls are too often called bossy, she thinks.
She is so in love with media that, when asked what her alternative career might be, she answers: “Media law”.
We look around the office that nobody owns yet.
“It’s a bizarre experience to not know everybody, to not know where the kitchen is,” she says. “I have no preconceptions about people, because I don’t know anybody. I kind of like the idea of not knowing what’s going to happen.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF UTV: LORDS AND LADIES, CROSS-BORDER APPEAL AND A ‘SECTARIAN’ MIRROR
UTV is the oldest commercial television station in Ireland. Its first transmission was on October 31st, 1959. It opened with an address by Laurence Olivier, a member of the consortium that had won the franchise to broadcast in the North as part of the British Independent Television Network.
The consortium had been started by Ulster man William MacQuitty, a film producer, who brought in Olivier. Randall MacDonnell, Lord Antrim, was consortium chairman. The station manager was Brum Henderson, who was 29. He had been named after Brumwell Thomas, a family friend who had designed Belfast City Hall. The Hendersons owned and ran the Belfast News Letter, and Brum had been born in Hillsborough Castle.
Ulster Television – Henderson never liked the title UTV – was put together with astonishing speed between May and October 1959; the station’s engineers had only started work in September. From the start, Ulster Television’s schedule was unapologetically populist and middle-of-the-road. Ulster’s sectarian tensions were undoubtedly the reason for this policy, which has proved very successful: its currently has a 26.2 per cent share of the North’s TV audience, as opposed to BBC NI’s 17.7 per cent.
The strange mix that created the station – the aristocrats and Belfast merchant princes of the Ulster establishment, combined with show business and English variety theatre – gave it a cheerful dash. Brum Henderson started the Ulster Television Art Collection with Angela MacDonnell, Lady Antrim, who was an artist. Then there was Teatime with Tommy, in which Londoner Tommy James played the piano at length. Many Northern Irish Catholics maintained that the hosts of Romper Room’s Magic Mirror never called out Catholic names. We in the South took Ulster Television for granted, as it spilled over the Border.
In 1990, Henderson was edged out, and called his treatment “graceless”.
According to Mediaworks/Nielsen figures, UTV’s share of the Republic’s TV audience is 5 per cent. At its agm in May, there was a shareholder revolt about executive pay. UTV employs 600 people in Ireland, 300 of them in the Republic. In April it appointed Mary Curtis, previously of RTÉ, as head of channel. Its official entry to the Republic’s television market most obviously targets TV3, from which it has taken Coronation Street and Emmerdale. But all stations are nervous. “UTV has deep pockets,” says one industry insider. “There are already 48 channels on which you can buy advertising in the Republic. The question is: will everybody survive?”