TV3 promises ‘new world’ of TV – but what about the ‘old world’?

Three-channel group looks to future, but Virgin customers still missing ‘real’ UTV

A giant "3" floats on the horizon promising "a new world of TV". It's an ad campaign for TV3 Group, hashtagged #powerof3 to reflect the fact that the group now owns three channels: TV3, 3e and a sort-of newbie in the shape of Be3, the new name for UTV Ireland as of yesterday.

Some viewers though, it appears, would like the "old world of TV" back. The disappearance of the UTV Ireland brand has prompted what can only be described as fresh hope that "real" UTV might return. For pay-TV customers of Virgin Media, at least, that is simply not going to happen, for reasons obvious to people in the industry, but perhaps much less so to audiences.

This has been a sensitive subject for two years. When the now non-existent Belfast company UTV Media launched the UTV Ireland channel, targeting viewers – or, rather, advertisers – in the Republic, it was a brave and unexpected move, but one that was received with cautious positivity. It was going to create employment.

Enda Kenny trooped down to Dublin's Docklands to open its new studio – there was a plaque and everything – while its news service, which finally signed off last Friday, was a professional, award-garnering affair and the product of some smart people.

It never found an audience, in large part because it received little or no boost from the broader UTV Ireland schedule, which was unexpectedly poor and unmistakably inferior to the “real” UTV channel many Irish viewers had been happily watching, if not since birth, then since the 1950s. What was then UPC Ireland and is now Virgin Media became the subject of ire and impatience from viewers, who felt they were paying the same money for a service that had declined in quality.

The new channel offered two types of repeats. Episodes of flagship ITV series such as Doc Martin and Foyle's War that the UTV audience had seen just the year before were irksomely trotted out again, sometimes on the same night that new episodes of those shows were being broadcast by "real" UTV.

The other kind of repeat was even more depressing. The kind of vintage television viewers expect to see up in the nosebleeds of their electronic programme guides was being given peak-time slots on UTV Ireland. Episodes of Poirot from 1992 resurfaced complete with old-school aspect ratio, black rectangles to the right and left of the screen.

How could a channel that was “worse” than what had gone before generate sustainable employment? It did not add up – literally, as a succession of profit warnings proved. By the end of 2015, UTV Media had sold both its television channels to ITV.

It must be said that while viewers may have felt sour towards UTV Ireland, their annoyance at not being able to watch what they want, when they want, can’t compare to the slow deflation that must have been experienced by the channel’s enthusiastic and hard-working recruits.

Its remaining workforce hovered in an anxious corporate limbo for a year, as the sale to ITV was followed by a second sale – to the new owner of TV3, Virgin Media. This deal killed off the possibility that original UTV would return to its platform. To make the Northern Ireland channel available here would make zero commercial sense for Virgin, as the TV3 family of channels is selling advertising in the Republic around many of the same big programmes (from Emmerdale to The Voice) that are broadcast on UTV.

One of the reasons TV3 is in a stronger position these days is that UPC/Virgin customers who would have had a choice between watching Coronation Street on either UTV or TV3 in 2014 can now only watch it on TV3.

The big picture is that Virgin’s ownership of both TV3 and the former UTV Ireland is good news for the Irish broadcasting sector, albeit a properly painful one for those UTV Ireland employees not hired by TV3. Some, notably former UTV Ireland news editor Mick McCaffrey, have transferred.

But the group has also inherited the bad feeling towards UTV Ireland, which is now rapidly shifting on to Be3. Disgruntled viewers can see new and returning shows being promoted in the British media, yet can’t find them anywhere on the TV3/3e/Be3 schedules.

There will be some occasions when this is because an Irish-produced programme is being shown instead. So while UTV, and the rest of ITV in the UK, were showing new drama The Halcyon at 9pm last night, Be3 broadcast Aerial Ireland, a one-hour film by Irish company Tile Films made for the Smithsonian Channel in the US (and aimed at that audience).

However, TV3 is also unlikely to do anything that might cannibalise its own audience and here's where viewers could see their choices shrink. There will be no Lorraine to distract from Ireland AM, for instance, and no new dramas put up against Red Rock.

Some ITV-broadcast dramas that will make it to air sooner or later include Broadchurch, Midsomer Murders, Tina and Bobby and Prime Suspect 1973, but for a whole raft of other ITV shows, it's a wait-and-see game.

TV3 Group can make the complaints of the “real UTV” faction disappear by packing its schedule with as many of the flagship ITV shows as possible, but it can also answer critics through a step-change in commissioning activity.

The group's call out for ideas late last year highlighted that it was seeking more "high impact series" in the vein of Gogglebox Ireland and Celebrity MasterChef, as well as "noisy" event programming and "high-end" entertainment and drama – nothing too "traditional" in outlook.

It is when the results of this commissioning flurry make it to the screen that we will find out exactly how much Virgin Media believes in the “power of 3”.