The ITV Top 10: 9 – Ulster 

3 September 2005

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
ALBUM Ulster

This article was written in 2005 to coincide with ITV’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The text has not been revised.

At 9 in our Top Ten is Ulster Television, or UTV as it now likes to be known.

Covering the north of the island of Ireland, Ulster Television had possibly the worst region any company could hope to cover. Northern Ireland, the political entity, was in the UK but out of it; was the only party of the country to have a border with a separate country; was, until 1972, the only devolved part of the UK, with its own parliament and Prime Minister.

Leaving aside the politics, if one can do so in such a troubled province, the population Ulster Television covered was also in the UK but out of it. Mostly protestant but with a large Catholic minority; mostly looking east but with a large minority looking south; mostly poor but with a large minority poorer still and living in conditions that resembled the late 19th century. Into this mix has to be added the broad swathe on both sides of these lines who didn’t give a damn either way but simply tried to survive.

What money there was in the region belonged to the landowners. And the landowners were almost universally protestant and Unionist. With money comes power, and the power was in the hands of the protestants.

So when setting up the new ITV station for the region, the ITA had to try carefully to ensure that it wasn’t one that would take sides, whilst being only able to pick from protestant applicants.

It would have been easy for any company to pay lip service to the idea of neutrality, and then to ignore it. Many companies, and many government departments, did so. Certainly, before the Catholics organised themselves into a civil rights movement, it was normal for companies to be firmly on one side or the other – generally on the Unionist/protestant side.

UTV was not able to avoid this completely. For one thing, it was serving the protestant part of the island and had to reach to the majority in order to make money. But it walked the tightrope very well given the circumstances of the times.

When the civil rights movement was born, UTV was able to report on it dispassionately, and thus gain the hatred of both sides – a badge of distinction it shared with the BBC.

When the civil rights marches and anti-civil rights campaigners clashed, the result was civil war, euphemised as “The Troubles”. UTV then had the tough job of reporting a civil war on the news, then living through it with the viewers. Viewers in the area will be pleased to know that the RUC have given the all clear – next tonight, Coronation Street.

Of course, there are clear economic reasons for not discriminating and to holding to neutrality. For a start, there was a substantial overlap on VHF between Ulster Television and RTE. Both carried advertising and both were appealing to the same market – the border between the two countries being unmarked and largely unguarded, the currency until very recently pegged so that prices were the same in both areas.


As the Troubles grew worse, the economy in the north declined. But the economy in the Republic, largely unaffected by the Troubles and with a large amount of inward investment from the United States, began to grow. UTV had to look south for money; it couldn’t, therefore, be seen to be on one side of the peace line or the other – economic suicide for a mass-market undertaking.

The result for Ulster Television has been a good one. With the end of the civil war in the 1990s (if not the end of the problems that caused and perpetuated it), UTV’s hard work and investment in quality local programming from both sides (and none) allowed them to reap a peace dividend.

Ulster Television survives outside of the ITV plc monolith; it commands high ratings throughout the island of Ireland, despite competition from Ireland’s TV3 – ironically, part owned by ITV plc.

UTV’s survival and prosperity is down to some good decisions early on and a committed workforce well looked after by management. The company manages to be loved by people on both sides, its announcers feted by both communities.

Being Northern Ireland’s ITV contractor is a difficult job. Making a success of it is harder still. For those reasons, amongst others, UTV deserves its place in our Top Ten.

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