Wednesday 21 November 2018

Does UTV Ireland 
have the X factor in the Republic?

Pat Kenny and Alison Comyn at the UTV preview launch
Pat Kenny and Alison Comyn at the UTV preview launch
Pat Kenny and Alison Comyn at the UTV preview launch
Coronation Street is a cash cow for TV3
The popular Midsomer Murders
Graham Norton
Julian Simmons
John Meagher

John Meagher

Veteran broadcaster Pat Kenny was been wooed by the country's newest TV station. But will viewers 'move the dial' when the network goes live in the New Year?

UTV Ireland's presentation to media and advertising agencies on Tuesday afternoon is drawing to a close when chief exective John McCann says he has a surprise up his sleeve. Boasting about having successfully kept the news from leaking, he welcomes the channel's newest signing, Pat Kenny, into the large conference room of Dublin's Marker Hotel.

The attendees - several hundred of them - all turn around to see the veteran broadcaster standing at the entrance, beaming, before he strides up to the aisle to the dias with the enthusiasm of a besotted bride whose groom is awaiting her at the altar. It is the only bit of theatre in an event that has been decidedly humdrum up to that point.

From footage of Jeremy Kyle's abrasive talk show to scenes from Coronation Street and with clips from UTV's parochial series, Lesser-Spotted Ulster, thrown in for good measure, UTV Ireland's planned offerings lack the wow factor. And then Kenny is unveiled and the country's newest station - which plans to go live on January 5 next year - and suddenly UTV Ireland seems that bit more compelling.

Much like Kenny's defection from RTE to Newstalk last summer, the appointment has taken industry insiders by surprise. When UTV Ireland came into being last November, its director, Michael Wilson, appeared to rule out the possibility of the channel opening its chequebook to lure a figure as central to the Irish broadcasting firmament as Pat Kenny. "It's far more likely," he told Weekend Review, "that we will cultivate our own talent rather than try to lure people who are already established somewhere else."

Last weekend's announcement of Alison Comyn as anchor of a nightly one-hour news programme appeared to fulfil that promise: after all, the Louth journalist is largely unknown to the general public and her previous television work centred on travel and light entertainment more than a decade ago.

At the presentation, Comyn - who acts as MC - jokes that Pat Kenny has diverted all attention from her. Quite what type of show Kenny will present has not been set in stone yet, partly because it will be made by an outside production company and the commission has yet to go to tender.

But Mary Curtis, the ex-RTE producer who is heading up UTV Ireland's homegrown content, says the show is likely to be "a one-hour, peak-time programme that plays to Pat's strenghts.

"It will be live or 'as-live'," she says, "and it will incorporate the different strands of what viewers would have been familiar with from Pat over the years."

Curtis and Wilson first approached Kenny "about eight weeks ago" and will be hoping that his pulling power, which has proved successful for Newstalk, will encourage people to "move the dial" to UTV Ireland too. "I come from a public service broadcasting background," Curtis says, "but UTV Ireland has to be about making good television that people will watch. They will want to see what Pat's new show is like."

Just 10pc of all content will be home-grown. Besides Kenny's weekly show, and a one-hour news bulletin from Monday through to Friday, there will also be a daily 30-minute current affairs programme. Two of UTV's existing rural-centred programmes Lesser-Spotted Ulster and Rare Breed are to be reimagined for audiences in the Republic with the former becoming Lesser-Spotted Ireland.

Curtis hopes that "by Easter" there will be more domestic content and the documentaries that she is set to commission over the next few months will air by then.

Ultimately, though, for most, UTV Ireland is likely to be seen as the go-to place for evergreen soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale as well as middle-brow detective series such as Lewis and Midsomer Murders. It will also be the home for Graham Norton's popular chat show and Jonathan Ross's ailing rival series. "These are excellent acquisitions that are much loved by Irish people," she says. "But as a nation we also love news and current affairs so I want to ensure that UTV Ireland gets the mix absolutely right."

Many of these popular series were previously shown on TV3 and their loss will be keenly felt by the station in Ballymount, west Dublin. TV3 have also lost senior, behind-the-scenes personnel, including Daragh Byrne who is now UTV Ireland's commerical director. "I am extremely confident that this venture will be a success," he says. "Advertisers follow audiences, so having the the likes of Corrie is vitally important to us."

Byrne says while the television marketplace might be a crowded one - it's estimated that Irish agencies have a choice of 50-odd channels to advertise on - there are "clear signs" that brands are beginning to spend again. "I saw that towards the end of my time at TV3 - there was a definite pick-up in advertising spend."

Byrne says a newly formed sales unit, Fusion, which pulls together the various strands of the UTV business (including local radio stations FM104 in Dublin and 96FM in Cork), will help make UTV Ireland a powerful force in mopping up media spend. "It will bring simplicity to the marketplace," he says.

Right now, UTV Ireland staff are homeless: its purpose-built studio in Dublin's docklands is still some months from completion. "It's certainly been a challenge," says Mary Curtis, laughing. "But it's also really exciting because while UTV is a brand that is well known to people here, UTV Ireland will be very different and we hope viewers will see that right from the off."

Having Pat Kenny on board should help.

Old fashioned and fusty...

If you're of the opinion that all that's missing from Irish television is a camp continuity announcer to introduce the nightly soap operas, fear not - upcoming channel UTV Ireland has sent Julian Simmons around Ireland in search of his southern counterpart.

If, on the other hand, you've long felt that the UTV man's fey patter belongs more to the era of Larry Grayson than that of Graham Norton, not to mention that the days of onscreen continuity announcing are deservedly long gone, you may well wonder at UTV Ireland's persistence with such quaint broadcasting practices.

But that's always been the problem with UTV, which has seemed not so much a channel in itself as the Northern Ireland branch office of ITV - old-fashioned to the point of fustiness in its sets (you almost expect them to be framed by lace curtains) and so doggedly regional in its tone and content as to convey an aura of dull provincialism.

Indeed, the channel has always come across as the televisual equivalent of those Northern Irish towns and villages through which drivers pass on the way to Derry or Belfast - or somewhere that doesn't seem to have been trapped in a cultural and social time warp.

Perhaps UTV Ireland, with its headquarters in Dublin, will imbibe the more relaxed atmosphere in this part of the island. Certainly one wishes it well, while wondering if this little country needs yet another television channel.

But maybe the south's answer to Julian Simmons, rather than suggest a pantomime character from a 1970s regional repertory company, will add to the gaiety of the nation.

John Boland, TV critic

How TV3 will feel the pinch as a new station pitches its tent in a very crowded field

Tom Felle does not mince his words. "I don't see a future for both UTV Ireland and TV3. The market isn't big enough to sustain the two of them and I suspect it will be TV3 that will fail to survive. Let's put it this way, I'd be very surprised if both of them were still around in 10 years' time."

The journalism and new media lecturer at University of Limerick says TV3 have been put on the back foot even before UTV Ireland goes on air. "Having lost such commercially important series as Coronation Street to this new rival is a hammer-blow for them. They've definitely lost round one of the battle. And thanks to its access to ITV's global news service, UTV Ireland will wipe the floor with TV3."

The signing of Pat Kenny also shows UTV Ireland's willingness to spend in order to pull in viewers. "Kenny wasn't going to sit idly by and watch the last few years of his lucrative career go by," he says. "I couldn't see him working with RTE again and UTV Ireland is a good move for him.

"But I doubt he'll be doing a programme that focuses entirely on current affairs - commmericial considerations will dictate that the type of show he does will be of interest to the largest possible audience."

Felle notes that early criticism of TV3's failure to have a higher proportion of homegrown material, has abated now that the station broadcasts more Irish content, but points out that few of these programmes are ratings-winners. "For all the talk on social media, Vincent Browne doesn't pull in that many viewers [steadily declining ratings can drop to as low as 80,000 on some nights] and the series has begun to feel tired. It's the same revolving door of talking heads.

"TV3 have relied on the likes of Coronation Street to woo advertisers up to now, so how they manage without such programmes will be very telling. It will also be intriguing to see how quickly UTV Ireland can convince viewers its not just UTV broadcast from Dublin. Some of UTV's existing programming such as Lesser-Spotted Ulster is really poor, uninspired stuff and possibly ticks a public service box but little else."

Colum Kenny, Professor of Communicatiions at Dublin City University, also believes that TV3 faces an uncertain future thanks to the arrival of UTV Ireland. "It is a very crowded market and TV3 is right in the firing line," he says, "RTE will also be affected by its arrival, especially when it comes to grabbing its share of the advertising spend."

Despite the deep pockets of parent company UTV plc, Kenny believes UTV Ireland could struggle to convince viewers that it has a clear identity. "It will have to show that it is a very different entity to the channel that people have been familiar with, UTV," he says.

"Until the announcement of Pat Kenny, UTV Ireland was looking like a station that was full of promise but didn't appear to know what to do with itself. There's no doubt that Pat Kenny will attract viewers to the channel, because he is such a seasoned broadcaster, but will its news offering stand up to the competition?"

Colum Kenny says in the short term, the quality of programming on Irish television may become "diluted" as rival networks fight to attract viewers. "There are fears that it could dumb down more than it has and there will be less room for specific Irish content and current affairs," he says.

"There will be greater pressure on RTE to ensure that areas that are less commercially viable are not neglected. "There is also certain to be even more channels available than there are now, with many of them online and of dubious quality. so in 10 years' time you will still have people bemoaning the fact that there are hundreds of stations available but nothing worth seeing."

Tom Felle believes all existing stations will face competition from online broadcasters especially now that smart TVs have erased the boundary between conventional networks and YouTube and others. "There will be a lot of unregulated content coming through and that will pose a threat to existing stations," he says. "It will also ensure that our viewing habits become more and more fragmented, which will make it even more challenging to sell advertising."

Felle believes RTE One's commerical future looks secure. "It don't have an domestic competition to what it does and it consistently has the highest-rated programmes in any given week," he says. "RTE Two will have a much greater fight on its hands.

"A current problem for Irish broadcasters - and it's likely to get worse rather than better - is the fact that so much of the advertising spend is going to cross-channel broadcasters. Ireland's proximity to Britain and its media means that ad money that might have been spent here is going abroad. It's a saturated market and only the fittest will survive."

John Meagher

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