A view from the inside 

9 May 2023 tbs.pm/77858

Watching Ulster Television: Day Two

 

Mr. Brum Henderson, deputy chairman and managing director of UTV has been at Havelock House since the station opened in 1959. He talks about its performance and plans to Alf McCreary.

 

“It is no argument to say that the public is being given what it wants. Not only is this true of only a percentage of the public (albeit a large one); those who presume to control such an influential communications medium as television must have a constant concern for quality.

“Our own regional company is scarcely immune from this criticism. Without its ‘prestige’ news-based offering, its current contribution to Northern Ireland’s life is very limited and it has never achieved a consistent level of programme output that would reflect the best of what goes on around us.”

 

Belfast Telegraph masthead

From the Belfast Telegraph for 23 November 1979

THAT considered view of Ulster Television was contained in a Belfast Telegraph editorial as far back as 1967, less than eight years after the station opened. The view today would be based on its current output and its record, but that editorial of 12 years ago demonstrates that Ulster Television, whether it is criticised or praised, is never ignored. It is a local institution living in the public eye.

There is more to television than the material which appears on the screen. Behind the scenes are the people who face the problems of balancing quality and popularity with keeping the shareholders and the Independent Broadcasting Authority happy, plus the physical problems of surviving in a province that has known some of the worst urban guerrilla violence in Europe since World War Two.

Ulster Television began with a blaze of excitement, if not glory, in 1959. Its front-runners were as distinguished as any of the illustrious names produced by the new Lord Dunleath consortium which is bidding to take the IBA franchise and to oust UTV next year. The station closed its first night broadcast with Sir Laurence Olivier, and at that time big names were no bigger than this prince of the English theatre. Even today the shareholders are not unimpressive. There are over 80 names of voting shareholders dotted judiciously across the spectrum of business, commerce, the professions and the arts.

As a UTV executive said, in relation to the 40 or so names in the new consortium. “We have the other lot, only twice as much so.”

The early excitement subsided. At the start it was a feat in itself to produce local faces and accents on screen. But by the mid-Sixties the almost swash-buckling navigation across the seas of television fortune had brought the UTV vessel to comparatively calmer, though duller, waters. Mr. R. B. Henderson, the deputy chairman and managing director who has been at the bridge in all kind of weathers since 1959, makes his point in a different way.

FIRST

A man in a suit sits behind a desk; television screens can just about be seen behind him

Mr. Brum Henderson – “I like talking and I like people”

He says: “In a garden there is a period when things grow and then you have to go fallow. That fallow period was necessary.” Henderson, however, is quick to dispel any impression that UTV was, or is, sitting on its past reputation. He is nothing if not a positive thinker and a keen salesman who makes sure that the UTV list of “firsts” is made known.

The early tea-time magazine programmes are claimed as the first of the kind for the network, adult education programmes were pioneered by UTV, it was the first ITV company to use the Early Bird satellite for transatlantic programmes (albeit in a limited way) and the Gloria Hunniford programme is the first in the ITV network to devote around 60 minutes to a tea-time magazine.

Hard news purists would say that UTV’s cutting edge has been blunted by the development of so many of its resources to the softer magazine content of the Hunniford programme, but Henderson is clear about one of the major philosophies behind the production. He says: “A profound depression creeps over people in Northern Ireland and it is our duty not only to stem the flow of tears but to try to show also that a smile can come through. These past years have been great character-builders.”

He counters the criticisms of those who believe that UTV is far too “parish-pump” in its programming and attitudes. “When I go to London I sometimes look at the Eros statue and that is one of the greatest parish pumps in the business. To me the term parish pump conveys no particular significance. I think, however, that it is an unfortunate way to describe a place where people do have an exchange of views. We concentrate on local affairs because we are about Northern Ireland.”

The quality of television programmes depends ultimately on money. It takes money to attract and to keep talented people and it takes money to provide adequate studios and the latest technical equipment. In 1968 UTV announced plans to provide a £1m colour studio complex at Annadale. A year later, however, this was “postponed indefinitely” partly due to lack of money because of a Government levy on ITV companies and a drop in advertising revenue. The company still holds the land at Annadale but development on that site is not being contemplated at present.

Someone who has worked closely with UTV said: “It is sad that UTV is still on the same site. There have been opportunities to develop a new site and to provide better resources and facilities to give them an opportunity to do bigger and better things. Limited facilities have always been a drawback. The reversal of the Annadale decision was a mistake.”

Brum Henderson takes a different view. “There was no way we could do it. At the time it did not make financial sense, and in this business there are no marks for bankruptcy.”

The shortage of space remains chronic, but the company has decided to expand on the Havelock House site. The present building has been extended and the company has embarked on a £3m [about £21.5m in today’s money, allowing for inflation –Ed.] investment programme in the next five years to improve its accommodation and technical equipment.

This will include a new outside broadcast unit. Keen observers with a cynical twist might conclude that this is merely franchise-hunting by UTV which is keenly aware that the new contract is being awarded next year. One man formerly with the company suggested that UTV should have had these facilities at least eight years ago.

SPORT

Henderson is adamant that this was not the sin of omission. The delay was due to technical and financial factors. He says: “In 1962 during a visit to the United States I had the idea of lightweight cameras in small vehicles and now this may be a possibility. It has been necessary for us to wait for the new technology and the right financial basis.”

He is also critical of the use made by the BBC of OB units. “We were watching other broadcasters locally and we hope that we have learned from their errors.” He admits that an OB unit in UTV would have improved their coverage of sport. “We are rectifying that,” he says. “However, the range of sport capable of sustaining an OB unit in Northern Ireland is not as wide as some people would have wished to think.”

There have been accusations that UTV has not ploughed back as much as it might have done. In the early Sixties an irate politician claimed at Stormont: “There is grave disquiet in the community that this money-making machine is not properly taxed.” Tax considerations apart, there has been a feeling among the uninitiated that ITV generally has been a licence to print money.

The latest UTV company report shows that shareholders in the past year received less than 10 pc return on their money and they might have done rather better with a building society. Someone close to the company claims that shareholders over the years have had a fair return and “sometimes more than a fair return” but that their profits have been by no means excessive.

DRAMA

Since 1970 the company has ploughed back £1m [£7m] direct, and this constitutes around 50 pc of its after-tax profits. It has also written off £1.5m [£11m] in depreciation on equipment.

Mr. Desmond Smyth, the UTV financial controller, said: “Since 1959 we have ploughed back on average more than 50 pc of our profits, though in the past four years the amount was much greater than in the Sixties.”

Some critics of UTV point to a tiredness and a lack of vision in its programming. The old chestnut about the absence of television drama can be seen against a background of high costs. A previous play “Boatman, Do Not Tarry,” cost the equivalent of £150,000 [£1m] and artistically it was said to have deepened the frowns of certain senior executives. UTV is thinking of a competition for playwrights next year (under the shadow of the franchise renewal?) but television drama is an expensive business that mainly the bigger network companies can undertake with financial realism.

Criticisms of UTV’s performance in terms of documentaries, art programmes (or lack of them), entertainment and religious offerings are countered by Henderson with a list as long as both arms. It is difficult to itemise the professionals’ complaint. The programme record is there on paper but the programme-makers are so stretched that one of them recently typified their frustration: “It’s like working on a conveyor belt,” he said.

Henderson does not quite take the point. He says: “The pressure falls unevenly because of the nature of the medium. There is always going to be a hard core of overworked people whatever the size of the organisation. We are not in a position to assign people to go off for months and to dig up subjects. We use their night-time, their weekends and their holiday times to bring back new ideas. It has been my general experience that when people have been given time to reflect the result does not necessarily have the same edge as something done more rapidly and inspirationally. It would be nice to be able to do this, but that is something we cannot afford.”

The BBC seems to be able to do this, whatever the cost. Henderson is a competitor and his eyes are as firmly fixed on BBC locally as no doubt BBC eyes are on him. He says: “I have a great admiration and liking for BBC people but they have a different job to do. Why do they copy us?”

Nevertheless, a recent survey prepared for the IBA by British Market Research Bureau Ltd., claims that 56 pc of viewers questioned in Northern Ireland believe that BBC-1 is “extremely professional” in its presentation while just 11 pc believed the same about ITV.

Perhaps the most familiar figure about UTV is Brum Henderson himslf. Still only 50, he can be a charming, agreeable and greatly determined man. He remains young at heart and keen to contribute to a medium that has devoured lesser men. However, some observers feel that he has loomed too large and that some of his senior executives have less power than they might exercise under a different structure.

Henderson denies the allegation that he has too much power and claims that his senior executives have a great deal of freedom of movement. Het says: “I will not be here for ever, though I feel as fit as a fiddle. I do yoga, and I swim at least twice a week. But no one is immortal and there is a very adequate structure here that takes care of the mix. I am mindful of that. We are all part of a team. Maybe I used to be centre-forward but now it’s more like centre-half, perhaps even full-back.

“I am a big chap physically. I like talking and I like people. I am ‘around’ life and I am the one who gets noticed doing ambassadorial work but I am confident that I have good officers at base. A general is the man who says “These are the targets and you are expected to hit them’. I chide some people and I nurse some people. I do have some craggy citizens to deal with.”

When the new franchise is being considered, UTV will stand or fall by its record and the strength of the challenge from the consortium. A considered view among television and non-television professionals might be that UTV has not done badly, given its revenue, its size and its role in the network-though it could do better in terms of equipment, facilities, staff and creativity.

VIEWERS

It may be some consolation to UTV executives that in the recent BMRB survey 57 pc of Ulster viewers preferred ITV to 29 pc for BBC-1, in the unlikely circumstances of being stranded on a desert island with only one channel. None the less, the franchise will be considered on factors as well as public opinion reports, and one man associated with the IBA in the past pointed out that a company does not have automatic right to proprietorship just because it has been there for 20 years.

The battle between UTV and the Dunleath consortium will be lively and not without its own fascination. Brum Henderson says that if he were to choose an inscription for his tombstone it would be: “He was a craftsman.” He is now in the rare position of being able to hear the IBA and the public’s verdict on his abilities as a craftsman, long before he fades into that great television news-room in the sky.

 

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