Sunday 21 April 2019

New channel will pose a bigger threat to RTE than to TV3

David Blake Knox
David Blake Knox

David Blake Knox

THE NEW Year will deliver a new Irish television station. Ironically, UTV Ireland can also claim to be this island's oldest indigenous station. Ulster Television was launched in 1958 - more than three years before Telefis Eireann made its first broadcast. The northern station changed its brand name to UTV in 2006, and that change reflected a growing ambition to move outside its provincial origins.

This move south is just the latest expansion of UTV's broadcasting empire - which has already seen significant investment in a number of radio stations in Ireland and elsewhere.

The most immediate impact that UTV Ireland will have is on TV3. A number of that station's most popular shows, such as 'Coronation Street' and 'Emmerdale', will, from now on, be shown on UTV.

On the face of it, this might seem like something of a body blow.

However, TV3 has responded by launching 'New Dawn' - a new and dynamic broadcasting schedule. The most significant programme in that schedule is a home-produced drama serial called 'Red Rock'.

This is the most ambitious series ever commissioned by TV3, and represents a powerful statement of confidence in the future of the station.

TV3 is also launching 15 new shows in January alone, and claims that 50pc of its output is now produced in Ireland. In addition, the station has also secured exclusive rights to the 2015 Rugby World Cup - an acquisition of strategic importance.

There are other reasons why the advent of UTV Ireland may not pose a great threat to TV3. To begin with, there is a considerable difference in the make-up of the audiences which the two stations have targeted. TV3's programming is largely focused on younger Irish viewers - UTV's primary appeal has traditionally been to an older demographic.

If anything, the main competition that TV3 is set to face comes from RTE 2. RTE 2 presents itself as the "voice for the under 35s" - and this is reflected in the slate of its acquired and home-produced shows.

UTV shows have tended to place great emphasis on local identity. One of the most popular of these is 'Lesser Spotted Ulster' - now in its fifteenth season - which visits locations in the Northern Irish countryside, and interviews rural people. It will now be extended to include other parts of Ireland.

Continuity announcers still play a central role in UTV's output: in fact, UTV is the only company in the ITV network that still broadcasts in-vision continuity announcements. This can give a somewhat old-fashioned and parochial feel to the station, but it has proved very popular.

If there is one area where UTV has developed an undisputed expertise, it is in its coverage of news and current affairs. UTV has already developed an extensive news-gathering network around Ireland that is based on the local radio stations in which it has invested.

In this context, the primary threat which UTV might pose is not to TV3, but to RTE.

The state broadcaster has recently scrapped the morning news series 'Morning Edition', as it failed to attract enough viewers.

It is clear that broadcasting competition in Ireland will intensify in the course of the next few years.

Ireland is still a relatively small market, and it remains to be seen if it can support so many separate stations.

On the other hand, markets outside Ireland are beginning to open up for Irish producers, and this new environment is also likely to offer Irish viewers an unprecedented degree of choice. Some critics have argued that this will result in a "race to the bottom."

However, there is little evidence that this will be the probable outcome. In fact, it seems possible this may lead to a new and exciting era in Irish broadcasting.

David Blake Knox is a television producer at Blueprint Pictures

Irish Independent

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