Lights, camera, action as UTV Ireland gets ready to launch

The new channel aims to be ‘unmissable’, but is facing stiff competition from RTÉ and TV3

 

For UTV Ireland, the only thing missing is the audience. In its Macken House base in Dublin’s docklands, the just-assembled news team spent the days before Christmas in mock show mode, performing live run-throughs in its newly constructed studio. There are, it’s clear, some nerves.

But there is also a sense of excitement. UTV Ireland’s Twitter account has been sending daily “countdown” tweets. It is not every day a new television channel is launched and, in truth, the rationale for launching them may not exist in the future.

Former RTÉ executive Mary Curtis, head of the channel, leads press journalists through a tour of the newsroom. It is the week before everyone else gets to take some holidays. After a year described by group chief executive John McCann as “almost frantic”, seasonal time off for UTV’s 100-plus new employees will be minimal.

Rows of reporters, editors, camera-people and studio co-ordinators prepare reports for that day’s rehearsal. The “modular” news set looks like a collection of gleaming white cubes, though it won’t appear so clinical on screen: there are built-in light boxes that change colouring and mood.

Intense recruitment

Alison Comyn

In a year of intense recruitment, Drogheda-based Comyn was one of the first of UTV Ireland’s appointments. She was hired by UTV managing director of television Michael Wilson, who would have known her from their time at the short-lived Sky News Ireland. Comyn brings polish, experience and warmth.

Her main co-anchor on news programmes will be Chris Donoghue, familiar to Newstalk Breakfast listeners as the sidekick to Ivan Yates. Donoghue, a radio man keen to try his hand at television, is said to have put in confident, energetic turns in the run-throughs.

Indeed, Donoghue’s energy levels have been the subject of some debate among news hacks confounded by the idea that he intends to spend 2015 “double-jobbing” between Newstalk and UTV. Newstalk says “young and fit” Donoghue is only doing two nights a week at UTV, but UTV seems less definitive – it clearly wants to make the most of its hire.

“Star” signing Pat Kenny will front the first Irish programme to be broadcast on New Year’s Day, a documentary looking ahead to 2015 called Out with the Old – In with the U. His chatshow won’t begin until the spring. Independent production company Coco Productions recently won the commission and the exact format is “still in the melting pot”, Kenny says. He’s “not trying to be coy”. It will be filmed elsewhere, as there is no space for a studio audience at Macken House.

Out with the Old – In with the U, made by Loose Horse Productions, seems like a clever starting point, interweaving celebrity and “civilian” interviews and stories with an introduction to news personnel like political editor Mary Regan and economics editor Paul Colgan, who have joined UTV from the Irish Examiner and RTÉ respectively.

Competition with RTÉ

TV3Marcus LehnenSix-OneNine

The news and current affairs team will battle with RTÉ’s for access to politicians, officials and others making the headlines. There will also be scheduling overlaps, with RTÉ’s Prime Time and Claire Byrne Live clashing with UTV’s Ireland Live at 10, the more analytical late evening news hour.

RTÉ News is still by far the bigger operation, of course, and it will be keen in 2015 to show off what it can do and what others can’t; in news, this means having foreign correspondents on the ground.

UTV’s news and current affairs commitments were what persuaded Minister for Communications Alex White that the channel had “a public service character” and should therefore be carried on Saorview, the free-to-air digital terrestrial television platform. The 160,000 Saorview-only households – 10 per cent of the total number of TV households – are important to broadcasters, because these are the viewers who are least likely to be distracted by the non-Irish, multichannel competition.

And if there is one word that will sum up Irish television in 2015, it is competitive. McCann’s aim is to take a large share of the Republic’s €200 million-plus television advertising market, which is finally growing again.

At the heart of UTV’s commercial plan is its deal to broadcast soap operas Coronation Street and Emmerdale from 2015, as well as a raft of other shows distributed by ITV Studios. These include daytime staples This Morning and Loose Women and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and their I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!

The Belfast-based company wants its Dublin offshoot to be the most-watched channel in the Republic after RTÉ One. But overtaking the popularity of TV3 is an ambition, not a given.

TV3, now stripped of its UK soaps, has invested in its own twice-weekly soap opera. Red Rock, aGarda-themed show set in a harbour town, begins on January 7th. The 16-year-old channel still has popular imports, such as The X Factor, Downton Abbey and Broadchurch.

Investment

UTV Media

So will they? Pat Kenny thinks so. It is much easier to get viewers to flick than it is to get radio listeners to “move the dial”, he says. “The radio you will never shift is the one in the milking parlour which is covered in a fine layer of congealed cowshit, switched on at the mains and on a high shelf.”

And when it comes to younger viewers, everything is changing. UTV Ireland won’t just be competing with RTÉ, TV3, Sky and other broadcasters. It will be up against YouTube, Facebook and every other tech company and social network trying to attract viewers.

The original UTV, which went on air in 1959 with a greeting from actor Sir Laurence Olivier, was the first television station to be broadcast from this island. UTV Ireland is the latest, and it may yet be the last.