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Ofcom must protect UTV News in face of sale to ITV

By Paul Connolly

Published 23/10/2015

Anchors: Rose Neill and Paul Clark
Anchors: Rose Neill and Paul Clark

And so UTV, that famous, and indeed cherished, station will soon slip from local ownership.

A Belfast institution, a Northern Ireland icon of sorts, is disappearing before our eyes after 56 years.

Yes, there will for a while be an entity which might style itself UTV locally. And yes, you'll probably still hear Julian's mellifluous tones sounding out what's on "the UTV".

But it won't be the same. And I predict, over time, the 'U' part will disappear and it will become just another part of ITV.

It's been clear for some time that UTV as a corporate entity has been cool towards local television news and indeed programme-making. Let's face it, news costs money, and serious news costs serious money.

The difficult foray south of the border as UTV Ireland will have served merely to underline assumptions about risk and reward in regional television.

You could see it in UTV's retreat from television news to its current line-up, which is effectively only at 6pm and 10:30pm.

Long gone are lunchtime news, weekend news and heavy- weight investigations like Counterpoint.

As things stand, under a licensing deal cut with regulator Ofcom some time ago, UTV broadcasts four hours of news and two hours of other content a week. Nothing like it used to do.

However, even with this reduced output, UTV News is still a valuable service for the people of Northern Ireland.

UTV Live at 6pm routinely attracts around 177,000 viewers and has a 35.3% share. That's no mean achievement given that they are up against the BBC.

Importantly, the existence of UTV news preserves the plurality of television news in Northern Ireland. If it goes, then conceivably the word of a single BBC executive will dictate the broadcast news agenda locally. (Thank goodness for newspapers!)

It's not good for news to be dominated by only one perspective or worldview. People - even news executives - are human and their judgments are fallible. Competition keeps everyone on their toes.

But with the sale of UTV, there are concerns that ITV might seek to water down UTV's news and local programming output.

They may try to mirror the regional bulletins in the rest of the UK, which I think are lesser in stature and content than UTV. As I understand it, they also share material like some features reports.

It is also possible that ITV - or indeed a new owner if it were sold - will seek another dispensation at a later date to further dilute or withdraw altogether from regional news provision.

This would be a serious blow to the plurality of local news across the UK.

It is therefore important that when considering UTV's sale to ITV that Ofcom ensures the current output of local news is preserved, and that there is no 'wriggle room' to water down or reduce output in Belfast.

Ofcom will now conduct a 'change of control' review, which will ensure that UTV's current programming and licence commitments continue to be observed.

UTV was granted the Channel 3 licence last year for 10 years - and a decent money-spinner it is too.

It's critically important that this review holds the line and doesn't yield to any attempts to water down local news and programming provision.

Belfast Telegraph

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