Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has expressed concern at the “disturbing” changes to UTV since it was bought over by ITV earlier this year.
Mr Nesbitt, who alongside his wife Lynda Bryans was for years the channel’s main news presenter, immediately expressed concern about the £100m ITV takeover when it was announced at the end of last year.
He warned at the time that he was “emotionally saddened and intellectually challenged by the news that UTV will no longer be locally controlled” and said bluntly: “I cannot see anything good coming from the sale, certainly in the medium to long term.”
Even before the takeover, UTV – which when founded as Ulster Television in 1958 had legendary former News Letter owner Capt Bill Henderson as one of its first directors – had shed many of its most experienced journalists over the last decade.
It has also dropped the once-famous Insight strand of investigative programmes which used to be a rival to BBC NI’s Spotlight programme.
Mr Nesbitt expressed alarm at what has happened in the radical changes which ITV has imposed in little more than six months of ownership.
Since February, ITV has:
• Warned that jobs are to be cut, with 43 out of UTV’s total workforce of 134 deemed surplus to requirements;
• Axed its make-up department, making presenters and guests apply their own make-up;
• Announced that it is quitting its home of 60 years, Havelock House, for a smaller site;
• Removed one of its most recognisable faces – Julian Simmons – from his role as an on-screen continuity announcer to bring it into line with the rest of ITV;
• Dropped its most substantial news programme, UTV Live Tonight.
Mr Nesbitt told the News Letter: “I think what has come to pass was predictable, unfortunately. The bottom line will be the bottom line – and it will be financial, not viewing figures, for ITV.
“It’s important because even though we have a fledgling opposition here at Stormont we don’t have a second chamber here like they do in London or Dublin so the role of the media in scrutinising is more important here ... all the print media to an extent are struggling in terms of resource, staffing levels ... if you pare back UTV that just leaves BBC Northern Ireland as the one well-resourced journalistic outlet and it’s not healthy for them to have anything that might be interpreted as a monopoly or a clear run.
“You want a really strong UTV because that’s good for the BBC, that’s good for scrutiny, that’s good for politics and that’s good for Northern Ireland. So yes, I’m concerned.”
Mr Nesbitt expressed particular incredulity at the axing of UTV Live Tonight, an exceptionally cheap programme to make which attracted impressive viewing figures, last month. Viewing figures in that slot immediately plummeted.
Mr Nesbitt said: “To axe the late night show to my mind is extraordinary because to my mind I don’t think you could think of a cheaper format. They own the studio, they own the gear; it’s a question of changing the rotas so that the cameramen and everybody else are working a late shift.
“A lot of the taped reports they’re doing anyway for the six o’clock show and they fill the studio with people who don’t charge a penny for being there – people like me, politicians. You can do 20 minutes effectively for free.
“So to cut that I think is a very disturbing signal about the intent, which is to pare everything back to the minimum.”
UTV did not respond to Mr Nesbitt’s concerns about the recent changes.
However, senior UTV managers have previously spoken enthusiastically about the ITV takeover.
UTV’s creative director, Trevor McCormick, said the channel was now in an “exciting new chapter”.
And Terry Brennan, head of news and programmes at UTV, has said: “ITV is committed to investing significantly in UTV to provide viewers with a high quality news, current affairs and regional programming service. We recognise that UTV’s brand heritage is exceptionally strong in Northern Ireland which is reflected by its market leading position.
“This is something we wanted to build upon when the channel joined ITV, keeping the strong connection with the UTV audience, but clearly positioning UTV as part of ITV... as part of our significant investment in UTV news, we will be moving to new state-of-the-art premises in Belfast. This will happen in early 2018 ... and will see our new HD studios become the most modern in Europe.”