UTV (TV channel)

UTV (formerly Ulster Television) is the ITV region covering Northern Ireland, ITV subsidiary and the former on-air name of the free-to-air television channel serving the area. It is run by ITV plc and is responsible for the regional news service and other programmes made principally for the area.

The modern TV channel, ITV is directly descended from the network of the same name, consisting of independent regional companies which were once the only commercial TV broadcasters in their area. UTV held the licence for Northern Ireland and first went on the air on October 31, 1959.[2]

The company itself was formed in November 1958 to apply for the licence – advertised by the Independent Television Authority – and became the first indigenous broadcaster in Northern Ireland.[2] The company later diversified and the UTV television operation was sold by parent UTV Media plc (now known as Wireless Group and part of News UK) to ITV plc in February 2016.

The governing body of the Independent Television network, the Independent Television Authority, first advertised the franchise for Northern Ireland in September 1958.[3] Two consortia applied for the franchise; one led by the Duke of Abercorn and supported by The Belfast Telegraph and The Northern Whig newspapers, the other led by the Earl of Antrim and supported by The News Letter and Sir Laurence Olivier.[3] The ITA eventually persuaded both applicants to merge their bids to obtain the new franchise, on the provision that a greater stake of investment in the station was offered to Catholic sources.[3]

With the ITA request met, the group, under the name Ulster Television Limited, set out their plans for broadcasting; initially, the station would try to provide 20 minutes of locally sourced programmes per day, and the company arranged with ABC Television to sell advertising time and to maintain their studio premises at a former hemstitching warehouse in Havelock House on the Ormeau Road in Belfast.[3]

Ulster Television went on air at 4pm on Halloween Day 1959,[4] the 12th ITV station to launch. The station's opening was overseen by Lord Wakehurst, then Governor of Northern Ireland, and Sir Laurence Olivier introduced the opening ceremony.[4] The station's first night of programming, introduced by duty announcer Adrienne McGuill, featured networked series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and 77 Sunset Strip,[5] two news bulletins from ITN and the 1949 feature film Task Force. Sir Laurence Olivier delivered the station's first epilogue, an excerpt from Joseph Addison's "The Spacious Firmament".[5]

The following evening, UTV contributed a play to the Armchair Theatre series, "A Shilling for the Evil Day", produced in association with ABC Television.[4] Earlier in the day, the station broadcast its first unofficial colour production – a film of images from across Northern Ireland was broadcast entitled Ulster Rich and Rare, produced by Lord Wakehurst.

At launch, Ulster Television employed a staff of 100 people including six presenters: Ivor Mills and Anne Gregg were chosen as the presenters of local magazine programme Roundabout, Adrienne McGuill, James Greene and Brian Durkin were the first continuity announcers, and former rugby union international Ernest Strathdee was recruited as the station's sports presenter.[6]

Initially, Ulster Television's programmes would only be available to viewers located within range of the Black Mountain transmitter near Belfast.[7] On the station's first night of programmes however, it was reported that some residents of Dublin, located over 100 miles away, had called the station to report poor picture reception.[3] Coverage of UTV spread to Western areas of Northern Ireland when the Strabane transmitter opened in February 1963.[7]

Ulster Television's UHF PAL colour service was launched with the opening of the UHF transmitter Divis in September 1970.[3] This was followed by two additional transmitters at Limavady (opened in 1975[3]) and Brougher Mountain (in 1978[3]). In the early 1980s it broadcast reduced hours when no schools programmes were being broadcast coming on air at 12 noon during the week, and closing down every evening at 23:30 – this remained in place until 1982.[citation needed] In October 1988, the station began 24-hour broadcasting – the last station in the ITV network to do so.[8] UTV was originally scheduled to take a service provided by Central in Birmingham, but a late minute decision to switch to Granada Television's sustaining feed, Night Time, led to a month-long delay.[citation needed]

At the company's annual general meeting in Belfast on 26 May 2006, the registered company name was changed from 'Ulster Television plc' to 'UTV plc'. The company believed that the existing name no longer reflected the full scope of the company's business.[9] In a further change in October 2007, UTV underwent a corporate reorganisation which saw UTV shareholders swap their shares for shares in a new holding company, UTV Media plc, which took over UTV plc's shareholdings in the new media and radio subsidiaries. UTV Ltd. – the original Ulster Television Limited, now a wholly owned subsidiary of UTV Media – returned to being solely the operating company for the ITV franchise.[10]

On 19 October 2015, UTV Media announced that it would sell its ITV franchise and the UTV brand to ITV plc for £100 million, subject to regulatory approval. ITV plc CEO Adam Crozier welcomed the news by saying:

UTV Television's strategic objectives are closely aligned with our own and we are very pleased that they are joining the ITV family.

ITV intended to fully retain the UTV brand in Northern Ireland, and not re-brand it under a standardised name (such as "ITV Northern Ireland"). On 11 July 2016, ITV plc announced that it would sell the UTV Ireland service to Virgin Media Ireland (which had bought Ireland's TV3 in 2015).[11]

The former UTV Media group was restructured and rebranded as The Wireless Group, retaining its radio assets until June 2016, when the company was brought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.[12] In July 2016, ITV plc sold UTV Ireland to Virgin Media Ireland – a subsidiary of Liberty Media – for €10 million.[13]

In October 2016, ITV announced plans to close UTV's Havelock House studios.[14] UTV began broadcasting from a new broadcast centre at City Quays 2 in the Belfast Harbour Estate from 1 July 2018.

Local continuity announcements ended in April 2020, effectively rebranding the channel as ITV in line with all other ITV plc regions. This change was originally intended as a temporary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but was made permanent in November 2020. The UTV name continues to used for local programming, notably the news service UTV Live, and in on-air promotions for local non-news programmes.[citation needed]

UTV’s focus has always been on programmes made explicitly for viewers in Northern Ireland. But until the 1990s it also made a number of contributions to the ITV network and Channel 4 – many of which were in some way about the province.

Before ITV branding was introduced in 2020, UTV/Ulster Television used a number of different logos, or idents on-screen over the years.

Until April 2020, UTV was one of two stations in the ITV network – and the only one owned by ITV plc – to have its own continuity announcers.[citation needed]

UTV was also the last company in the network to retain in-vision continuity links, where the duty announcer appeared on-camera to introduce the evening's programmes. In later years, local continuity was generally restricted to evenings with in-vision links presented at weekends by senior announcer Julian Simmons. In 2009, the practice was restored to weekday evenings and presented by the entire announcing team.

Following the sale of UTV, ITV plc transferred most of the station's presentation operations from the Havelock House studios in Belfast to Red Bee Media in Chiswick, which provides playout services for most of ITV's channels.

The last live in-vision announcement was made by Simmons at 11.15 pm on Sunday 16 October 2016, marking the end of 57 years of local transmission.

Two of UTV's longest-serving announcers, Julian Simmons and Gillian Porter, were retained to pre-record out-of-vision continuity – with Aidan Browne providing relief cover – until 2 April 2020, when the channel began taking ITV-branded network presentation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.[citation needed]

In November 2020, it was reported the announcing team had left UTV following a decision to switch permanently to network continuity.[81] The last known announcement, voiced by Porter, aired at 5.59 am on Thursday 2 April 2020.

In April 2021, a local voice-over started to be used over the ident before some local programmes.[citation needed] A new bumper with the UTV logo and the tagline "Part of ITV" was also shown for a short time before some – but not all – commercial breaks.[82]

In common with the rest of the ITV Network, the station aired specially composed signature tunes as part of its daily start-up routine. From launch until 1971, the opening theme was Seamus by the American musician, composer and bandleader Van Phillips, who had earlier written the theme tune of the popular 1950s BBC radio science fiction drama Journey into Space. UTV's best-known theme was The Antrim Road, a classical symphony composed by Wayne Hill and Earl Ward, which was used between 1971 and 1983. It originally featured on The British Isles, an LP of orchestral arrangements of traditional and characteristic national tunes of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The album was released on the De Wolf label in 1971.

ITV’s service for the UTV region is available in HD – like most other ITV regions – but UTV was one of the first stations in the ITV network to offer a full HD simulcast in its days as an independent company.

UTV HD, a simulcast of UTV in high-definition, was launched on Virgin Media on 5 October 2010.[83] It became available on Freeview when the digital switchover took place on 24 October 2012 and on Sky and Freesat on 4 November 2013.[84][85]

For the first few months, the only true HD content came from the ITV network but after an upgrade local material including adverts started to be played out in HD .

In May 2011, the presentation infrastructure was upgraded to become fully HD-capable in readiness for the digital switchover in 2012.

A delayed version of the full ITV service for the UTV region is available on Freeview and Virgin Media.

The timeshift service – branded UTV+1 before the station adopted ITV branding in 2020 – launched at 8pm on 11 January 2011 on Freeview and Virgin Media. UTV +1 however didn’t launch on Sky and Freesat until 21 May 2018.

On 13 April 2021, ITV stopped broadcasting UTV +1 on satellite. ITV +1 Granada was added to Sky in Northern Ireland to replace UTV +1.[86]

UTV Ireland was a short-lived sister station to UTV's Northern Ireland service, broadcasting to the Republic of Ireland.

The new channel launched on New Year's Day 2015, following approval by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.[87]

UTV Ireland was broadcast from the company's Dublin base at Macken House and carried a large amount of ITV's networked programming (including Emmerdale and Coronation Street, previously broadcast by TV3) alongside some bespoke programming, including Ireland Live, a twice nightly national news programme airing at 5.30 pm and 10 pm.[88][89][90]

Ratings and advertising revenue were disappointing which meant the costs of the new station were greater than UTV Media had expected. This played a part in the company’s decision to sell the whole television business to ITV plc.

In July 2016, the channel was sold on by ITV to TV3 Group (now known as Virgin Media Television) which then, effectively, closed it.

It was replaced by a substantially new channel called Be3 on 9 January 2017. This new channel was rebranded as Virgin Media Three in August 2018. It focuses on children's and female-orientated programming.