Belfast Telegraph

Some UTV operations may go to England, admits boss

By John Mulgrew

Some of UTV's operations could be moved to England after a takeover by ITV goes ahead, the broadcaster has told a Stormont committee.

Michael Wilson, managing director of the company's television division, said the deal could go through as early as this month "once all the regulatory processes are complete".

Mr Wilson appeared in front of the Culture, Arts and Leisure committee at UTV's Belfast headquarters at Havelock House yesterday.

He was quizzed on areas including potential job losses, local sports coverage and whether some company functions such as IT and HR could move elsewhere following the takeover.

The company's television division, which includes UTV in Northern Ireland and UTV Ireland, was sold in October in a £100m transaction - a deal first revealed by the Belfast Telegraph in August.

The launch of UTV Ireland has cost the company £13m.

When quizzed by Basil McCrea of NI21 over whether Mr Wilson had given staff any assurances about job retention, he said: "No, of course I haven't, because ITV haven't shared any of their future plans with us. In that regard, you would be naive to believe me if (I said) there wasn't concern in the building about that.

"As I've already said, ITV realise what they've bought here. They've bought a very successful station. I've been in front of this panel when we have gone through downsizing and, actually, I believe the size of the company is right for the business."

Mr Wilson said there was a "possibility that some functions could move to England" once the deal completes. "But I also think there's a possibility some functions from England could move to Belfast," he added.

He also insisted ITV understood "the value of the brand" but "until they own the company they are not sharing operational decisions with us".

"I suspect it will remain as Ulster Television, but that's a decision for the new owner," he said.

Asked about the amount of money pumped into UTV Ireland, Mr Wilson replied that the money invested "has not been made public". "The money there is on the balance sheets," he added. "It'd be advertised as a capital investment, and that transfers to ITV as part of the purchase."

UTV Ireland suffered a troubled start to its existence in the Republic, with some disappointing viewing figures.

Questioned by DUP MLA David Hilditch on local sports coverage, Mr Wilson said decisions on future areas, including subjects such as Northern Ireland sport, were with the new owners.

But he also added that the "cost of delivering local sport is not commercially viable".

"The figures paid for sports rights in the past do not stack up in the modern world," Mr Wilson said. "Because you're either a rugby fan, or a GAA fan, or a football fan, you're not buying a huge audience."

But he claimed he believed UTV "reflected all local sport well".

Addressing the committee, Mr Wilson said he understood that "such a significant period of change is very unsettling for staff and obviously their welfare remains our priority during this process".

"We are keeping our staff updated on all developments as they happen," he added.

Mr Wilson also spoke about some of UTV's recent success stories, including Daniel and Majella's B&B Road Trip, and Rare Breed - each of which secured an average of around a third of the audience share.

The UTV deal still has to clear Ofcom's media merger rules.

Belfast Telegraph