Belfast Telegraph

£100m sale may be signal for UTV to offload radio assets

By Margaret Canning

UTV is now expected to focus on selling its radio assets following the massive £100m sale of its television channels to ITV, it's been claimed.

Yesterday marked the end of an era at the broadcaster based at Havelock House in Belfast, which has fostered Northern Ireland talent such as Eamonn Holmes, Gloria Hunniford, Pamela Ballantine and Frank Mitchell.

But after 56 years of history as a locally-based firm, ITV in London confirmed it was buying the television division - which includes UTV Ireland in the Republic - in a £100m deal. The deal was first revealed by the Belfast Telegraph in August.

UTV Media plc still owns the hugely successful talkSPORT station in Britain, as well as 11 local stations there. It also owns U105 in Belfast and eight radio stations in the Republic.

Earlier this year the company said it was putting its local radio stations in Britain on the market - and has already offloaded Juice FM in Liverpool. It's also venturing further into digital radio with TalkRadio, a sister station to talkSPORT called talkSPORT 2 and TalkBusiness.

Economist John Simpson said: "With this transaction having gone through for a decent sum, they may now look at selling their radio assets.

"I started working there around 50 years ago as a freelance commentator. But what I think has happened is that for UTV, it's gotten too difficult to make money from regional programming."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt worked as a journalist for UTV for 13 years, and co-hosted its flagship UTV Live show with his wife Lynda Bryans from 1996 to 2006.

He said he was felt some regret over the sale.

"I fear for the future of a local brand so synonymous with broadcasting in Northern Ireland," he said. "ITV have offered some short-term security, including the preservation of the UTV brand, but longer-term there is no certainty, not least that ITV itself will not be taken over by a global player."

Under a licensing deal with regulator Ofcom, UTV in Belfast currently broadcasts four hours of news and two hours of other content a week, with the rest of its schedules filled with content from ITV.

A spokesman for Ofcom said: "UTV Media's conditional agreement to sell UTV Television to ITV is subject to regulatory approval. Ofcom will now conduct a 'change of control' review, which will ensure that UTV's current programming and licence commitments continue to be observed."

Its news programme UTV Live at 6pm routinely attracts around 177,000 viewers and has a 35.3% share. That's bigger than BBC Newsline's audience for its 6.30pm programme, 162,000 viewers and an average share of 30%.

UTV employs 213 people in Havelock House, including 143 in its TV division.

An ITV spokesman said he could not give details of plans for the business but added: "We will continue to provide high quality local news, and non-news, programming in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and we will obviously need teams to deliver this in both Belfast and Dublin."

Belfast Telegraph