Broadcaster’s multimillion confidence in Irish television market comes as a surprise

Details of new channel’s production plans remain sketchy

What does UTV mean to television viewers in the Republic? Group chief executive John McCann says the station has been "part of the social fabric of Ireland for decades". For many people south of the Border, that has meant enjoying the pre-Coronation Street monologues of veteran continuity announcer Julian Simmons.

Otherwise, UTV’s main connection with audiences in the Republic is through another medium, with the publicly quoted media group employing 250 people at the six radio stations it owns here.

Now it has declared a new mission. "We are aiming to go head-to-head with RTÉ and TV3 to be first choices for viewers," says McCann. The first of the 100-plus jobs it is set to create will be advertised shortly, while the broadcaster has "already started to look" for new premises – the space in its radio headquarters in Dublin's docklands won't be enough to hold everyone.

Simpler path
UTV has often been touted as a possible buyer of the debt-ridden TV3, but its chosen route into the market in the Republic – facilitated by its TV3-usurping content exclusivity deal with ITV Studios – is a much simpler path for the group.


However, the "multimillion investment" still comes as a surprise, largely because, of late, the television market has been harsher than an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show.

It is the collapse in television advertising revenues that has been responsible for the bulk of RTÉ’s woes since 2008, while in company accounts filed this week TV3 highlighted that 2012 and the first half of 2013 had proven to be “the most difficult trading environment”.

UTV Media itself reported an 8 per cent decline in its television revenues across Britain and Ireland in the first half of 2013 and is currently seeking eight redundancies in Belfast.

So why launch a new channel now? "I tend to be a little bit more optimistic today than I would have been this time last year," says McCann. "There is certainly a greater sense of confidence beginning to creep into the marketplace."

UTV is “the third favourite commercial television channel in Ireland”, its confident submission to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland notes.

In fact it is a long way behind TV3 and RTÉ Two. TAM Ireland television ratings place UTV's market share for the week ending October 27th at 2.9 per cent. This makes it more popular than TG4 and 3e, but leaves it trailing RTÉ Two with a 6.2 per cent share and TV3 with an 11.4 per cent share.

RTÉ One is way out in front with a near 20 per cent share of total viewing, while BBC One takes a 4 per cent slice.

For TV3, UTV’s disruption of the market could be a blessing in disguise – albeit a very good disguise. Its growth to its current level of popularity is a direct result of its strategy to steadily increase its percentage of home-produced programming – a figure that now stands at 35 per cent.

Set to be deprived of key schedule fixtures from 2015, TV3 will be obliged to make even more of its own shows in the even-more-competitive future – assuming it doesn’t become a takeover target for UTV.

As for the Belfast-based group, the trajectory of TV3 may provide a useful example. So far, UTV has only committed to producing one programme specifically for the market in the Republic – a nightly news and current affairs hour. If it wants to capture the interest of viewers, it will need to do more jumping up and down than that.