TV3 and UTV Ireland together at last under wing of Virgin Media

What will the cable group do with its new Irish channel? Change its name, for starters

UTV Ireland, now under the ownership of Virgin, is facing a full rebrand. Photograph: Eric Luke

UTV Ireland, now under the ownership of Virgin, is facing a full rebrand. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

What will Virgin Media do with UTV Ireland? The TV3 owner and broadband company has bought the channel from its temporary owners ITV and, as part of the deal, taken over a 10-year agreement for a supply of programmes distributed by ITV Studios Global Entertainment.

It is hard not to view the ITV output contract, which includes Coronation Street and Emmerdale, as the shiny toy in this deal, and the UTV Ireland channel as the packaging. But Virgin Media does seem keen to spend some time playing with the box.

The variance in their price tags highlights the relative strengths of the TV3 Group, which includes the channel 3e, and was acquired from its private equity owners in a €87 million deal last year. UTV Ireland, meanwhile, was picked up for just €10 million.

TV3’s studio facilities at Ballymount are far bigger and more flexible than UTV’s single, small news studio in the Dublin docklands, the future of which may be in doubt. An amalgamation of the TV3 and UTV news and sales teams would seem logical, but no details are forthcoming on the jobs front – Virgin won’t say anything until the deal is cleared by various regulators, which could take until the end of the year.

Flagship channel

TV3 will be the flagship channel here. Amazingly, being high up on electronic programme guides (EPGs) still counts for something in 2016, and at position 103 on both the Virgin Media and Sky platforms, TV3 occupies a better spot than UTV Ireland. Indeed, 3e also has a higher EPG position than UTV Ireland on the two biggest pay-TV platforms.

The ITV soaps have been the missing piece of the TV3 jigsaw over the past 19 months and it will almost certainly want to put them back on TV3. Before UTV came along and snatched the rights, they were the bedrock of the TV3 peak-time schedule, and even in the on-demand era, they can be relied upon to gift a decent “inheritance” of viewers to the shows scheduled around them.

From late 2017, visits to the Coronation Street cobbles will increase from five to six episodes a week, which no one in TV3 will be sniffing at. But alongside the long-awaited Gogglebox and the return of Red Rock, TV3 has also signalled that its autumn schedule will include a larger crop of home-produced programmes with a realistic chance of diverting RTÉ viewers.

One area of interest will be whether it creates new, original content for Saturday evenings, when it has traditionally shown ITV imports, including Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and The Graham Norton Show (which is distributed by ITV Studios).

Even after UTV Ireland bought the rights to these shows from 2015 onwards, TV3 carried on repeating older, pre-2015 episodes, irking UTV Media, which dubbed the resulting dilution of its audience as the “Ant and Dec problem”.

Not unlike 3e, UTV Ireland is likely to become a support act to TV3, but one that nevertheless adds very nicely to its market share, all the while making life more difficult for RTÉ. Virgin Media cable customers who would dearly love the “old” UTV to make a return would do best to forget about this dream, as it would make no commercial sense for Virgin to make the Northern Ireland channel available here.

Full rebrand

But what will “UTV Ireland” be called? The current tautology came complete with Emerald Isle travelogue screen imagery and, under the circumstances, an unfortunate channel ident of a farmer carrying a bucket of slop. The previous owners tried to ram home the Irishness of the channel even as it began each day with Good Morning Britain and reminders that competitions were not open to viewers in the Republic. This mismatch between branding and reality irked some viewers.

A full rebrand is desirable. Alas, the Virgin Channel sounds wrong, and neither does “TV3 2” work. “TV3” followed by a word that hints at the predominant genre or target market seems a good guess, but we live in a world where television channels are called “Dave” and “Really”, so it seems foolish to make predictions.

The new era will be overseen by Virgin Media Ireland chief executive Tony Hanway, TV3 Group managing director Pat Kiely and TV3’s new director of content, who is due to be announced shortly and is tipped to be someone well known to Irish independent production companies and TV3’s rivals.

It’s a great gig at an exciting time. But it’s also not the easiest of tasks to recruit young viewers in 2016. And notwithstanding Virgin’s investment, the question of how many proper channels the Irish television industry can support will be asked more, not less, in future.

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