30 September 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
25 Oct 2007 :
Michael Wilson
Continuing IFTN’s series of Broadcaster Q&As, we speak to Managing Director of UTV Television, Michael Wilson, about how his early career in journalism influences his current position, the challenges he faces as MD of UTV and the changing landscape of Irish television with the digital changeover...

IFTN: How old were you when you got your first job in the industry?

Michael Wilson: I was the youngest news editor in ITV at 24/25, something like that, and then I moved to Sky when I was 27. I moved to UTV when I was about 35.

What were your ambitions at the age of 25? Were you very much driven at that stage as well or did you just want to make your way in the industry?

I think I was, and arguably still am, a journalist through and through. I like stories. I tried my hand as a reporter for a while but I actually preferred news gathering, the editorial, building of programmes and stories, and I continued to do that in all my time at Sky. Then, after I’d been in journalism for close on 18 years, I realised that actually working in programming and the strategic direction of the channel was something I wanted to do.

Did you have any education or training background before you started working on UTV?

I have a degree in Communications and a Diploma in Broadcasting Journalism. My degree isn’t in Media though it’s actually Sociology, Psychology, Language, so it’s a humanities degree as opposed to a media degree.

How long have you been at UTV now?

Just over 18 months.

What was your plan when you first got there? Did you want to make changes or keep things going as they were?

The plan was to continue to develop the UTV brand as the leading channel in Northern Ireland, to modernise the output, to increase the production values, and to make ourselves ever more competitive in a very, very tight commercial market. Northern Ireland is, of all the UK regions, the most competitive marketplace because as well as all the UK channels we also get Republic of Ireland channels, so we’re in an interesting position of having competition coming from satellite, from cable, from preview and also from the Irish republic.

So what are your plans for the future of UTV itself and the television side of the business?

Master-plans do not take five minutes to implement, we are still on the curve of modernisation and we are still on the curve of increasing our production values. I think the multi-channel world, and certainly the new DTT potential in the Irish republic, is interesting, although we have to see how that develops to decide if we want to be part of it. It certainly is something interesting to have arguably for the first time an all Ireland marketplace. But whatever arena we decide to compete in, whether it be local news or local programming the goal is to deliver the best for our audience.

As Managing Director of UTV Television what does that role actually entail?

My role is exactly what it says. I am responsible for all television output, the relationship with the regulators, the relationship with other broadcasters, for developing talent within the company, for looking for new talent outside the company and a representative role, in terms of representing the company, whether it be at the Edinburgh Television Festival or at focus groups or working parties relevant to what we do.

What is the most satisfactory or enjoyable aspect of the job?

Because I’m a journalist I still like being first, I still like beating the competition, but perhaps something that has changed in my world is the quality and the flair of what we do is also important. If we get something right, and if we’re first, if we have a really strong unique programme that others would be envious of, that’s important.

What programmes or series would have given you that satisfaction to date?

I’m incredibly proud of UTV Live, our evening news programme. By share of audience we are the most popular regional news programme in the whole of the UK, we beat BBC NI by ten clear percentage points across last year, that’s a really good achievement.

Away from that, we put together a programme called ‘ Paisley: From Protest to Power’. We turned that around on the day the Stormont Assembly sat for the first time, it had some incredibly strong interviews in it in terms of world profile and access to Paisley. That’s the sort of programme that UTV can uniquely make in Northern Ireland because of the access we have. Now that’s if you like the top end of the scale in terms of hard documentary.

We had a really fun lifestyle series running called ‘Ultimate Ulster’. Firstly, it’s a lovely watch, secondly we’ve involved our viewers in voting for the top ten landmarks, restaurants, pubs etc. One of the programmes got a 41% share in peak time, against ‘Eastenders’, which that night only got 31%, so one of the strongest brands in British television, we beat by ten percent. That’s fine, but what’s even better, is that it was a good programme as well. We didn’t go for the lowest common denominator, we produced a really good programme and the audience appreciated it. So it is things like that that drive me and motivate me, and I’m most proud of.

Every job is not a bed of roses, are there any difficulties then that you face in your job?

There is the battle to secure advertising, the battle to keep up with industry standards in terms of training, in terms of giving the team the right sort of programmes to make and challenges to deliver the best possible television. Some people call them problems, they're not problems, they’re the things that we face day in day out, they are the challenges we face.

Do you think that UTV is striking the right balance between home produced programmes and the other shows that it brings in?

Just to give you some context here, our licence says we have to produce a given number of hours per year of local production. We have consistently over-produced against that figure, for the last well maybe, five, six, seven years. I’d need to go back into the records to get the exact number. So we consistently overproduce. We have peak time slots, we have high profile programmes in terms of marketing and publicity. I think people would always say ‘You don’t do enough’, and people would say ‘TV3 don’t do enough’. But it’s about maintaining the balance between what’s commercially viable, what’s serving the audience and actually what’s needed in the market place. I don’t get very many letters saying ‘You don’t do enough local programming’. People like network programmes, so I think the balance is about right, yes.

Do you think that the programmes you show right for the marketplace and the audience you go for?

Since I’ve been here the programmes we deliver reflect a new diverse Northern Ireland and therefore yes I think they are right for the marketplace. Everybody has the holy grail of delivering more young peoples programmes. In the main, young people don’t watch television, but I would like to deliver some later night programmes that would be attracting a new generation of viewers to UTV. But that’s a mantra that I’m sure everybody you’re talking to is saying.

So when you are commissioning new programmes what are you looking for?

When I write to independent producers, when they ask me the very same question, I say I like good picture stories; new to television stories; stories that are relevant to a modern Northern Ireland; and stories with really, really colourful characters in it. That’s what I’m looking for from either factual entertainment, from documentaries or quite frankly any format I’m commissioning.

How do you see UTV and Irish broadcasting in general developing over the next few years? Can you see it staying similar or pushing forward in a new direction?

I don’t think the media industry has ever stood still. There are technological advances and there are competition issues. I think the digital switchover which takes place here in Northern Ireland in 2012 will be significant to UTV and also I think the Irish republic DTT policy will be significant as well. There’s lots and lots of opportunities that will be great for the broadcasters, but there are also a number of challenges that we face, at times we’ve been at each other’s throats. Now may well be a time, certainly in corporate terms, to work together to ensure that the Irish indigenous broadcaster don’t get squeezed out by London based broadcasters or international based broadcasters. Now is a time where the true identity of Irish television is perhaps under more pressure than ever before.

How would you see that solidarity growing in Irish broadcasting, and how would you influence that yourself at UTV?

We would eagerly meet with the other broadcasters and I think that we have got to see where our mutual islands of agreement are if you like, and work on those, and at times we have petty differences, some of those need to be put behind us.

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