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Havelock House a hard station, but such are ways of commerce

By Don Anderson

Published 06/10/2016

The death by a thousand cuts of UTV as a prominent physical landmark in the media landscape of Northern Ireland - and indeed the whole island - continues inexorably. It will shrink further as the station becomes absorbed by the behemoth of ITV plc, to which it belongs lock, stock and barrel. ITV can do with it what it wishes, subject to regulatory restrictions, which have nothing to say about UTV remaining anything like its old self.

To understand what is happening it is worth looking at the history of commercial television in the UK. It began under the auspices of the Independent Television Authority (ITA) in the mid-1950s. The ITA owned the transmitters and it contracted companies up and down the country to supply programmes.

The five biggest - Thames, London Weekend, ATV, Granada and Yorkshire - ended up providing the backbone of the national network schedule, along with ITN for news. Smaller companies like Ulster Television used this network and supplemented it with its own programmes. Altogether there were originally 17 stations forming a good system that ensured each region was receiving local programmes in competition with the BBC.

The interesting aspect was that the TV companies were forced to compete for their franchises with comprehensive programme proposals backed up by coherent financial structures. The quality of programming was what mattered.

Unfortunately, that paternalism suddenly went out of fashion and Mrs Thatcher's Conservative Government was determined to consign it to oblivion in a widespread rush towards deregulation and privatisation of all industry. The 1990 Broadcasting Act smashed the old commercial TV system. Paternalism was out; TV franchises were to be auctioned, with safeguards, to the highest bidder. Regulation was to be 'light-touch.' As far as Thatcher was concerned, if it was commercial TV, then let the market rule.

At the outset in the Fifties, TV companies had been forbidden to take over one another. The 1990 Act relaxed that provision, and another Act in 1996 freed the companies even further. So the big TV companies began gobbling up the smaller until, by 2002, two - Carlton and Granada - owned all commercial TV in England and Wales.

Scotland and Northern Ireland were then the only significant areas apart. In 2004 Carlton and Granada merged to form ITV plc, and with the purchase of UTV, only Scotland remains outside the ITV fence - for the time being.

As to UTV's future, the experience in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 2004 might be pertinent.

Tyne Tees Television, the UTV equivalent, was long established in two converted furniture warehouses, just as UTV 's studios are in an old textile warehouse. After the 2004 takeover the station lost many jobs, moved out of its old address (since demolished) and reappeared in smaller purpose-built premises in a business park near Gateshead's famed MetroCentre (a documentary about the move is on YouTube).

If something similar happens, it's goodbye Havelock House, a business and cultural landmark for 57 years.

There is little point in lamenting what is being lost. All things change and in commerce the mantra is adapt or die. This is even more true of the media in all its forms. The UTV name will live on in its local programming and news, which are not destined to change drastically. Over the horizon, ITV itself might be on the takeover list. The Americans are sniffing that ground.

Don Anderson is a media commentator and author of 50 Years Of UTV

Belfast Telegraph

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