Broadcasting chiefs tuned in for £160m switch-on of new channel
A year ago, UTV announced its decision to launch a new TV channel in the Republic. The on-air date is New Year's Day. Don Anderson, who was Downtown Radio's start-up programme controller, knows something of the pressures of starting a new commercial broadcasting venture
The new TV channel for Ireland is to begin in under two months' time and its headquarters in Dublin's docklands won't be ready for occupation until next week.
As deadlines go, this is pretty tight, unbelievably so for an enterprise as complicated as a brand new, fully featured national television station.
Up until now, the staff - many only recently recruited - have been training in temporary premises nearby. New people are arriving practically every day.
So much is last-minute, it's difficult to believe that the present, frenzied activity is the culmination of almost five years' work, some of it delicate. At times, progress was necessarily stealthy, otherwise UTV Ireland would have fallen at the first hurdle.
A few years ago, UTV's relationship with ITV was rough at the edges, because UTV believed it was paying over the odds for ITV programmes. This was an irritation, because ITV provides the backbone of the programming, soaps like Coronation Street, Emmerdale and the like.
Operationally, UTV inserts its own programming into an ITV schedule. Michael Wilson came from Sky to become managing director of UTV television about eight years ago, reporting to long-serving John McCann, group managing director.
One of Wilson's priorities, doubtless at the behest of McCann, was to sort out relationships in London. "I renegotiated the entire relationship with ITV," he told me. "It took four years' hard work, but in the end I established good personal contacts there."
If he had he not nurtured ITV, UTV Ireland would have remained merely an aspiration for McCann and Wilson. The reason was simple.
In Ireland, the TV broadcasters are RTE (the national broadcaster), TV3 (the Republic's first free-to-air commercial channel), Setanta Sports Ireland, Sky Ireland and TG4, the public service for the Irish language.
The important player in this line-up for UTV was TV3, since it held the broadcasting rights in Ireland to the major soaps from ITV Studios.
Having the soaps was the key. UTV had the rights for Northern Ireland, but unless UTV could snatch these programmes for the whole of Ireland, UTV Ireland was a non-starter.
Wilson and McCann put a bold business plan before the UTV board. It was to expand UTV in television to the whole of Ireland.
It already had a strong foothold in radio in the cities and major towns throughout Ireland, so it knew something of the broadcasting advertising market it was aiming at.
Once the board members had given the go-ahead, quietly UTV began exploring whether ITV Studios would release the soaps to a new Irish television station.
It wasn't just a matter of money: Wilson had to convince ITV Studios that UTV had the management skills to build a completely new station robust enough to carry the flagship soaps. This is where the mended relationships in London counted for UTV, because late on the afternoon of Tuesday, November 5, 2013, ITV Studios signed on the dotted line, passing the soaps past the 15-year-old TV3 to the newcomer.
"We didn't know until almost the last moment whether we had managed it," recalled Wilson. All of the negotiation had been conducted with secrecy and, unusually, the media rumour mills in Dublin, London and Belfast caught not a whiff of what was going on.
With the ink scarcely dry on the ITV Studios contract, the following morning, November 6, UTV announced its intention to launch a new indigenous television station based in Dublin serving the Republic and that it now held Republic broadcasting rights to key programming from ITV Studios Global Entertainment, notably Emmerdale, Coronation Street, The Jeremy Kyle Show and others. It was a coup.
The announcement shocked the broadcasting establishment south and north of the border. No one had anticipated the move, because UTV had been doing tolerably well in the Republic through overspill from its Northern Ireland transmitters and through being carried on the major cable network.
However, as Wilson explained, expanding the limited success of UTV in the south was not a viable option: "UTV is not on Sky [in the Republic] and not broadcast in Ireland on terrestrial digital transmitters.
"In other words, we were available only to a limited audience and we wanted to be generally accessible.
"UTV Ireland will be broadcast in the same normal ways as other indigenous Irish TV stations, available throughout the country from day one."
Except for those within reach of the Republic's transmitters, UTV Ireland will not be available to those in Northern Ireland. It will be carried on Sky in Ireland, but not Sky Northern Ireland.
He might have added that, even if UTV had been obtainable for everyone in Ireland, its very Northern Ireland flavour would always have set it apart. To strike a newspaper analogy, the Belfast Telegraph would not expect mass sales in Limerick, any more than would the Limerick Leader in Belfast.
UTV lost no time in applying for the required licence from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and this was granted late last February, which left just about enough time to build a station for January - but only just.
However, that's now a UTV tradition.
In 1959, UTV had itself less than a year to find a building and find staff before its on-air date of Halloween.
In that short time, the board bought a derelict late-Victorian hemstitching factory and warehouse - today's Havelock House - for £17,000. There's nobody left in the company from those cheaper days. Setting up UTV Ireland is costing more than €200m (£159m).
The announcement was a setback for TV3, but they made the best of the news, saying that retaining the ITV soaps would have cost too much money - money which could now be reinvested elsewhere. RTE has so far been affected mainly through loss of people to UTV Ireland, both on-air and management talent.
They are near the end of the recruitment process, which has clearly been aimed at two requirements. One was buying experience, because the station could have no time to develop its own broadcasters. The other was to make an important point. This was not to be UTV as is.
The station had to have a Dublin and Irish core at its heart, obvious to onlookers and potential viewers, even down to the UTV logo with a new green background.
I well remember the tension in Downtown Radio as the first on-air day approached. I didn't have the budget to snaffle professionals from elsewhere, so most of the presenters were local, but new to radio.
We could all rehearse until hoarse, but we knew the until day one, we were talking to ourselves. When the red light switched on for real, we would be talking to tens of thousands.
One presenter, to remain nameless, went on air on day one with a bucket in which to be sick and you can't really do that on television. (He went on to be a highly professional broadcaster). But nothing like that will on happen on New Year's Day, because UTV Ireland is staffed by already very experienced people.
Michael Wilson has spent a lot of time in Dublin, going over and over everything.
UTV Ireland at least has the luxury of having UTV as a successful model to follow.
There will be Lesser Spotted Ireland and Rare Breed Ireland. The 90 minutes per weekday of news and current affairs will follow the pattern of UTV Live. He had sessions with all his senior people this week and concluded "there would be few things I'd change".
But big change is what is happening. UTV these days earns more from radio than television, with a string of radio stations across England and Ireland, including its London radio flagship, talkSPORT, claiming to be the world's biggest sports radio station.
If UTV Ireland takes off the way I think it will, becoming the second or even the most-watched TV station in the Republic, then Dublin will house UTV's television flagship, rather than Belfast. The centre of UTV's gravity is moving.
Constantly changing has allowed this interesting company to survive and flourish for more than half-a-century as an independent media entity when so many others like it have been submerged.
Famous names sign up for front line roles
- Former BBC Northern Ireland presenter Alison Comyn has been appointed one of the new faces of UTV Ireland’s news and current affairs team. Drogheda-born Comyn (44) is an experienced broadcaster, who has presented numerous current affairs and entertainment programmes in the UK and Ireland. Most recently, Comyn worked as a reporter with Independent Newspapers, covering regional, political, crime and current affairs issues. She also presented the BBC’s Holiday programme, where she worked alongside Jill Dando, Carol Smillie and Craig Doyle.
Other front line staff include:
- Renowned broadcaster Pat Kenny (60) will present a new peak-time series on UTV Ireland. Kenny works for Irish radio station Newstalk, having moved, in July 2013, to the station following a 41-year, high-profile career at RTE. Kenny was RTE’s highest-paid presenter for several years prior to his departure. Latterly, he presented Today with Pat Kenny on RTE Radio 1 each weekday and also presented the RTE 1 current affairs programme Prime Time. He famously succeeded Gay Byrne as host of The Late Late Show on RTE1 from 1999 until 2009. He co-hosted the Eurovision Song Contest as well as Today Tonight, The Pat Kenny Show and Kenny Live.
- Former Irish Examiner journalist Mary Regan has been appointed political editor at UTV Ireland.Regan worked for eight years at the Examiner, reporting on the front line of Irish and international politics before moving to UTV Ireland. Born in Galway, she began her professional career as a reporter for RTE, moving into politics as a weekly columnist for Village Magazine. She joined the Irish Examiner in 2006, where she reported on a number of historic events, including the bank guarantee, the IMF bailout, the collapse of the Cowen government and the 2011 presidential election.
- Mick McCaffrey joined UTV Ireland as news editor from the Sunday World, where he was senior investigative journalist. In 2013, McCaffrey was presented with the Security Journalist of the Year award, by the National Newspapers of Ireland, for his investigative work in tracking down and interviewing John Traynor over the death of reporter Veronica Guerin. Prior to joining the Sunday World, McCaffrey was news editor with the Sunday Tribune.