Belfast Briefing: Record defended as UTV awaits takeover

Concern for future as UTV is in its last few days as one of North’s few public companies

 John McCann, group chief executive of UTV Media which has been sold to ITV. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

John McCann, group chief executive of UTV Media which has been sold to ITV. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

It’s business as usual at the television division of UTV Media during the “transitionary” days of its £100 million (€130 million) sale to ITV, which could close by the end of this month if all the regulatory hurdles are cleared, according to head of television Michael Wilson.

He is keen to stress that UTV’s commitment to “our staff, our viewers and our shareholders remains unchanged” in its last few days as one of Northern Ireland’s few public companies. But he also knows there are no guarantees about what the future might hold, for the business, its staff, or indeed for him.

Wilson told a group of local politicians visiting UTV Media’s broadcast headquarters, Havelock House, that everyone who works for the television business will transfer to ITV as part of the deal.

There is, understandably, “concern” in the building about whether jobs will be safe once ITV took control.

“We have had no discussions whatsoever about what roles are staying or what roles are going. I am part of the sale moving forward and my own future is in the same place as the rest of the staff,” Wilson says.

He admits there is a “possibility some functions could move to England” but he is also optimistic that ITV’s arrival in the North could create openings. “There is also the possibility that some functions in England could move to Belfast. I believe there is a wonderful opportunity for a multinational to invest more here.”

‘Good news’

In the past 10 years, he said, it had become apparent to him that the broadcasting market had changed dramatically. UTV’s television division was not just competing with its chief local rival, BBC Northern Ireland, but potentially with 500 online and global media channels.

UTV could not hope to compete in a global market as it currently exists, which is why Wilson believes the ITV takeover “is a very positive move forward . . . It secures a lot of the services we provide for our audiences and the employment we provide for our staff.”

He adds: “ITV know they are buying a successful company with highly skilled staff and they know they are buying into something that Northern Ireland is very, very proud of and attached to. Consolidated ratings show UTV commands a 23 per cent share of peak-time viewing in Northern Ireland.”

But ITV is not just buying the Belfast television operations. It is also acquiring UTV Ireland, which has suffered teething problems. In November, UTV Media warned that losses at its Irish television business would climb to £13 million for 2015.

Worst kind of headline

When politicians from the Assembly’s Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure asked him during their visit if the timing of the sale of UTVs’ television division had anything to do with “the amount of money pumped into UTV Ireland”, he was not happy.

According to Wilson, the two factors have nothing to do with each other. “The offer came from ITV to buy the business as a public limited company. The offer was accepted by the board and the sale went ahead. I don’t think UTV Ireland was anything to do with that. In fact, I would argue that UTV Ireland has added value to the company.

“UTV Ireland, in terms of the audience, has had an incredibly successful first year. It is the second-biggest channel already in Ireland in peak time and fourth-biggest in all time, and after a year on air those are quite impressive figures.”

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