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'We were effectively sold a pup': UTV Ireland staff on their 2 years of 'pointless efforts'

Looking back over the past 24 months, former staff say they are proud of what they achieved at the channel.

Image: UTV Ireland

JUST TWO YEARS after it first launched, UTV Ireland will cease to exist after this weekend.

The channel aired its last live broadcast on Friday evening and it will be replaced from 7am tomorrow morning with a new channel called Be3, following a takeover by Virgin Media.

Staff who joined UTV Ireland were burdened with uncertainty less than a year into the new venture, when ITV purchased the channel. However, it was in July last year that its fate was sealed, when news broke that it would be sold to the company that owns TV3.

Former employees spoke to TheJournal.ie this week about their time working there, describing the initial excitement at being part of the country’s newest TV channel.

“There hadn’t been an opportunity to put a face on a TV channel for 20 years,” one said. “This was a brand new employer with a brand new national news service, so it presented a great opportunity for young journalists who were coming up the ranks. To be part of a team that launches something new, there’s a buzz that you just don’t get in another job.

The team gels so well in a start-up, you make friends for life in that scenario.

“When I applied for the job, I felt that RTÉ had been around forever and didn’t have to innovate because everyone watches the Six One,” a former news staffer said. “And with TV3, they obviously have talented journalists and presenters, but I always thought their news was very basic.

There was a real gap for a Channel 4-style news product, to do something a bit different, a bit of colour but covering stories in a different way. That was how everyone saw it, that’s what they hoped they were applying for and when I saw who was being hired I thought that was the plan.

“And the newsroom was so beautiful – I remember walking in for the first time and thinking it was just amazing.”

Source: RollingNews.ie

‘Constantly battling’

Early on in the life of the channel, however, staff began to notice the cracks. Several spoke of decisions being made in the Belfast headquarters that showed a “disconnect” between the team there and the one in Dublin.

“They weren’t listening to the people on the ground who knew the market and knew what audiences wanted,” one said.

A huge amount of it came down to the programming – people didn’t want to tune into series of Agatha Christie from the early 90s, or old series of Ice Rink on the Estate. There was little consistency in the schedule, the team in Dublin were constantly battling to get changes made to improve the channel and be more reflective of the market.

“When they started putting on documentaries about the Queen, everybody was just wondering why,” a former UTV Ireland worker told TheJournal.ie. “We had so much homegrown content that people don’t even know about.

“One big hit was Daniel and Majella, and that captured a lot of buzz. But there were programmes that I don’t even think people knew were on, like the one about Knock Airport.”

The Daniel and Majella’s B&B Road Trip series generated 270,000 average viewers for UTV Ireland across its six episodes. It also achieved strong social media figures, with 2.7 million Facebook posts about the series and over one million tweets using the series hashtag. The documentary series ‘The Airport up in Knock’ was also popular among viewers, with the channel citing viewing figures of almost 235,000 for the second episode.

“The efforts taken to try and fix issues and problems – focus groups, internal meetings – didn’t make sense, as it seemed the outcomes were all pre-determined,” another commented. “Little or no heed was paid to what the audience, or staff in Dublin were saying about how to correct failings. Those efforts ultimately were just pointless.”

‘Rumours were rife’

In October 2015, ITV confirmed its £100 million takeover of UTV Media’s television channels.

That same month, Chris Donoghue had quit his role as co-anchor of the Ireland Live news programme and just two months later broadcaster Pat Kenny, who had been the biggest name at the launch, also parted ways with the channel.

“I think the staff were really in limbo during the space of time between the two takeovers,” one former employee said.

“There wasn’t a lot filtering down about what was happening, rumours were rife. It was very distracting and it was difficult to stay focused and motivated, as there was a huge amount of uncertainty.”

“When the TV3 takeover happened, I assumed straight away that would be the end of our newsroom, because why would they want two?” another said.

People started leaving straight away. The whole internet desk was let go very soon after – they were all on short term contracts. Anyone who was on a short term contract didn’t have it renewed and others took opportunities – they didn’t want to hang around.

Former staff were critical of how the announcement was handled, particularly in relation to redundancies. Announcing the acquisition in December last year, TV3 said UTV Ireland at the time had 61 permanent staff.

It announced 40 “open vacancies”, adding it hoped “many” would be filled by staff left behind at UTV Ireland.

“The proposed changes may result in unavoidable redundancies in UTV Ireland but where possible, staff will be offered redeployment opportunities within TV3,” it said in its statement.

“What they refrained from saying was that there were actually an extra 35 freelance and contract staff who had no options at all and also that the 40 positions were available to not only the people in UTV Ireland who were being made redundant and had to apply for their own positions, but also to the staff in TV3 and the Virgin Media group,” one former staffer explained.

This week, there was just a small team left in the newsroom and studio to keep things running and put out the final live shows.

“I’ll be honest with you it’s been pretty grim, there’s been a morale deficit,” one member of the team said, ahead of their final live broadcast on Friday.

Most of the people left behind haven’t been offered jobs, but we still have to put out the show for the rest of this week. Nobody is very keen on being there with just a few days left. What I’ll say is the atmosphere has been different, but everybody is still doing the job and doing it well.

“You also have to remember UTV Media PLC was a listed company – what was their end goal? Did they really want to set up a successful channel in the Republic or make the television division an attractive asset for potential buyers?” one former employee questioned.

“The one thing that really annoys me is that there were such good people working in that building and they were effectively sold a pup.”

“We are still proud of what we managed to do. We won best news production at the IFTAs this year and I think that was deserved, and that was only in our second year,” said another.

“It’s a testament to the talented people we have and the work that everyone has put in and that doesn’t go away.”

Read: UTV Ireland will broadcast live for the last time this evening>

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