Sales: £63 million ($110 million) (2004)
Stock Exchanges: London Irish
Ticker Symbol: UTV
NAIC: 515120 Television Broadcasting
Ulster Television PLC (known as the less politically sensitive UTV) is Northern Ireland's leading television broadcasting group, and one of the top television broadcasters in the entire Irish television market. UTV is also the Northern Ireland ITV (Independent Television) license holder. As such the company is one of the smallest of the ITV licensees and, together with Channel, one of the last of the true independents. UTV more or less limited its operations to its ITV franchise from its founding in 1958 to the end of the 1990s. The company's broadcasts also are available to much of the Republic of Ireland, and the company has long been one of the most-watched stations in that market. Since the beginning of the 2000s, however, UTV has begun to redevelop itself as a full-fledged media group. The company's primary expansion has been into radio, particularly in Ireland's radio market. UTV now controls radio stations in Cork (96FM and 103FM), Limerick (Live 95FM), Dublin (Q102), and in Liverpool, England (Juice FM). In 2005, the company acquired Coderidge Limited, which operates the LMFM radio station in Drogheda, Dundalk. In March 2005, the company was awarded a license to operate a radio station in Belfast as well. In addition to its television and radio operations, UTV has extended into the New Media market. In 2000, the company acquired Internet provider Direct Net Access, which was renamed as UTV Internet. That company provides broadband Internet services to both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. UTV also operates the BOCOM International joint venture, which provides satellite broadcasting services to plasma screens, such as at the Dublin Airport. Television remains the group's largest activity, generating some 74 percent of the group's 2004 sales of £63 million ($110 million). Radio revenues added 17 percent to sales, while New Media contributed nearly 9 percent to group sales. UTV is listed on the Irish and London Stock Exchanges.
In the late 1950s, the British broadcasting authority created a rival network to the state-owned British Broadcasting Corporation. The new network, known as the Independent Television network, or ITV, was established in 1958, under the auspices of the Independent Television Authority (ITA). That body then assigned licenses to the various regions in the United Kingdom, including a license for the Northern Ireland broadcast area. The Northern Ireland license was awarded to Ulster Television in 1958.
Ulster Television formally incorporated in February 1959. The company launched its first broadcast on October 31, 1959. The first transmission was hosted by Sir Laurence Olivier. Ulster Television went public in 1961, listing its shares at first on the Belfast Stock Exchange, before extending its listing to the London Stock Exchange as well. The company remained quite modest; in 1966, the company's advertising revenues barely topped £1.25 million.
Over the next decade, television came to play an increasingly important role in Northern Ireland, as penetration of households increased, and as television came into its own—particularly as a source of immediate images reflecting world events. This became especially true for Ulster Television, with the eruption of the Troubles, and the beginnings of a near-war that tore apart Northern Ireland. Ulster Television at times found itself embroiled in the conflict between loyalists and nationalists, often accused of partiality by one side or the other. Indeed, near the end of the 1970s, the company's headquarters were bombed in a terrorist attack. The company's journalists, as well as its management, often found their lives under threat.
The situation led the group to de-politicize its name, as it began to refer to itself, both on-air and off, as UTV. In 1993, this appellation, at least on-air, was made more or less official. By the end of that decade, the company had begun to call itself UTV Group.
The new name reflected in part the company's expanding focus. In the 1990s, UTV had remained the smallest member of the Independent Television Group. By 1995, the company's sales remained at slightly more than £34 million. The company, which was subsidized by the larger ITV players, including Granada and Carlton, also was accused of being "unambitious," in that it invested comparatively little in new production and focused its existing broadcast production on regional programming.
The liberalization of ownership rules among the ITV members in the mid-1990s appeared to place UTV's future as an independent company in doubt. The company was considered one of the most obvious candidates for takeover, especially by one of the larger ITV groups. Indeed, in 1997, Scottish Media Group (SMG), holder of the ITV franchise in Scotland, appeared to be in the process of a takeover attempt, building up its stake in UTV to more than 18 percent.
By 1998, however, SMG, denying it had ever been interested in an outright takeover of UTV, sold its stake in the Northern Ireland broadcaster to CanWest Global Communication, a broadcasting group based in Canada, which was involved in establishing TV3 in the Republic of Ireland. CanWest's acquisition of SMG's stake boosted its own shareholding position in UTV to slightly less than 30 percent. Nonetheless, CanWest announced its shareholding to be no more than a strategic investment, and not the prelude to an outright takeover. In the meantime, UTV's association with TV3 through its major shareholder allowed the company to begin planning a strategy of cooperation to reinforce the company's position in Ireland. UTV had long been one of the most popular broadcasters in Ireland, and by the 2000s, UTV's broadcasts were estimated to reach nearly 80 percent of the Republic of Ireland.
Through the 1990s, UTV had become interested in expanding its range of operations, targeting areas such as interactive television services and future digital terrestrial television services. As part of that effort, the company acquired a stake in the European satellite broadcasting network, SES, operator of the Astra satellite service. UTV sold off its stake in SES, however, in early 2000, for £10 million.
That sale enabled the company to make its first real expansion effort soon after, when the company turned to a new market—Internet services. In March 2000, the company acquired Direct Net Access, paying £4.25 million for the Northern Ireland market's largest Internet services provider. UTV quickly moved to roll out its Internet services across greater Ireland, renaming its service as UTV Internet and launching the market's first free web service in June 2000. UTV Internet also became an early entrant into the race to offer broadband Internet access services.
UTV now began to target another area as it rolled out a strategy to re-develop itself as a full-fledged media group. At the beginning of 2001, the company launched a takeover offer for County Media, which operated three radio stations in Cork, in the Irish Republic. The company's offer was initially blocked by the Irish government, because of existing media ownership rules restricting cross-media ownership. Those rules were slated for review in March 2001, and the lowering of restrictions during that review enabled UTV to complete its purchase of County Media in April 2001. By July of that year, UTV had boosted its stake in County Media to more than 60 percent, before taking full control of the company in early 2002. The purchase gave UTV control of Cork's 96FM and 103FM, as well as the radio sales service, Broadcast Media Sales.
UTV next turned to Limerick, where it paid £10.5 million to acquire that city's Treaty Radio, and its Live95FM station. That acquisition gave UTV control of Limerick county's leading radio station, with a market share of more than 38 percent. UTV's next media extension came later in 2002, when the company acquired the newly launched LiteFM radio station in Dublin. The company then renamed the station as Q102.
UTV is one of the most successful media groups in Ireland incorporating Television, Radio and New Media.
The growth of UTV Internet, which emerged as a leading broadband provider in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, encouraged UTV to expand its New Media interests. In March 2002, the company acquired a 50 percent stake in BOCOM International. That company specialized in providing satellite broadcasting services to public-area plasma screens, such as those found in airports, train stations, and the like.
In 2003, UTV teamed up with Absolute Radio International and Eurocast to launch Absolute Radio UK. That partnership then acquired the license to Juice FM in Liverpool, England, marking UTV's first extension outside of the greater Irish market.
UTV's continued independence once appeared under threat as the two largest members of the ITV consortium, Granada and Carlton, agreed to merge, creating ITV PLC. The new company then announced its interest in acquiring its smaller, regionally oriented ITV partners in order to refocus the ITV network as a unified, national broadcaster. Yet UTV, joined by SMG and Channel, resisted ITV PLC's takeover plans.
Instead, UTV continued to seek out new expansion opportunities of its own. In early 2005, the company grew again, with the acquisition of Coderidge Limited, an operator of an independent local radio station in Drogheda, Dundalk. Soon after, UTV announced that it had been awarded a license to operate a radio station in the Belfast market as well. While television broadcasting advertising revenues continued to represent nearly 75 percent of the group's turnover, which topped £63 million ($110 million) in 2004, UTV had successfully reinvented itself as one of the greater Ireland market's major media groups.
96FM; 103FM; Live 95FM; Q102; Absolute Radio UK; Juice FM; UTV Internet; BOCOM International (50%).
British Broadcasting Corporation; News Corporation Ltd.; British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC; ITV PLC; SMG PLC.
Aldrick, Philip, "Ulster TV Gets in the Picture," Daily Telegraph, September 20, 2003.
Foley, Stephen, "Picture's on Hold at Ulster TV," Independent, September 16, 2003, p. 21.
"Granada Moves to Mop Up TV Minnows," Independent, October 15, 2002, p. 21.
Jay, Adam, "Ulster Still Tops ITV League," Daily Telegraph, September 16, 2003.
Kennedy, Billy, "Window Watching a Conflict Unfold," Newsletter, October 4, 2003.
"Ulster Television Shows That Small Can Be Beautiful," Independent, March 18, 2003, p. 25.
"Ulster TV Buys Treaty Radio for Pounds 10.5m," Independent, April 9, 2002, p. 22.
"UTV Wins License for New Radio Station in Belfast," Campaign, March 11, 2005, p. 8.
White, Dominic, "Don't Press Ulster TV Button," Daily Telegraph, September 17, 2002, p. 34.
—M. L. Cohen