Ex-UTV presenter Nesbitt pleads for buyer to keep firm in Northern Ireland hands
Former UTV presenter turned Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has urged a Northern Ireland buyer to come forward to keep the channel in local hands after the company announced a sell-off of the TV division.
The Belfast Telegraph revealed on Saturday that the plc is set to announce the sale to ITV of its TV division, which includes UTV in Northern Ireland and its southern channel UTV Ireland - and in a filing to the London Stock Exchange, the company yesterday confirmed that talks with an unidentified buyer were taking place.
Its share price rose by as much as 9% during the day following the statement. If a sale goes ahead, it will mark a watershed in the history of a TV channel which has brought many household names to the screen, from Gloria Hunniford to Eamonn Holmes and Pamela Ballantine.
But former journalist Mr Nesbitt slammed the company's decision to sell off its TV division - claiming it had a "whiff of surrender".
Mr Nesbitt said the launch of UTV Ireland in January this year, a move that will cost the plc £11.5m this year with disappointing ratings for many programmes, had been "disastrous" for the business.
Mr Nesbitt was a presenter on UTV for 13 years, most famously alongside his wife Lynda Bryans as co-anchors of news programme UTV Live.
He said UTV was "brilliant at making a connection with the viewer" and was firmly a local station and not a branch of a national operation.
"Having spent so many years making UTV stand out from ITV, the news that ITV are the most likely buyer has the whiff of surrender," he said.
He said some viewed the company has having "lost its soul" after it listed on the stock market.
"I am not aware of how advanced negotiations are with ITV, but I would encourage anyone with the necessary access to finance to look carefully at the possibility of a local buy-out to retain UTV's unique brand."
Tony Axon, a media analyst at advertising agency Navigator Blue, said UTV had been more successful with its interests outside TV.
In the three months to the end of March this year Radio GB was its healthiest division, with sales of £13.3m in the three months to the end of March this year, compared to Radio Ireland revenue of £4.7m and TV revenue of £11.8m.
Mr Axon said: "I think the UTV group has done better outside of its TV interests and probably wants more of that.
"So with UTV Northern Ireland slowing growth and UTV Ireland looking more expensive than anticipated, you can understand an ambitious board might look elsewhere than TV.
"If a deal can be done and that would include a solution for UTV Ireland, then the change will happen and we will have our local broadcaster no longer in local hands for the first time.
"I would expect ITV to continue and change things only very slowly. But it's hard to see decisions like launching UTV Ireland or even making local programmes like The Big House (a documentary about the restoration of Mount Stewart in Co Down) happening again."