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Interview: Michael Wilson On UTV's Northern Identity & Digital Future
01 Oct 2012 : By Steve Cummins
Michael Wilson
Michael Wilson spent more than 20 years as a journalist and programme maker before becoming managing director of UTV in 2006. Prior to working in Northern Ireland, he has held senior roles at Five News and Sky News.

How would you describe your job at UTV?
I’m MD so I’m responsible for all external commissioning, in-house commissioning, overseeing news and Government and regulatory relations.

When you are commissioning independent producers what are you looking for?
I have a simple commissioning criteria, which actually isn’t simple to hit. I look for great pictures, stories fresh to television, really interesting people and that reflect a modern and relevant Northern Ireland. A lot of people come to me with either Troubles-related content or localised versions of network content and we really aren’t looking for that. We’re looking for something that reflects a modern Northern Ireland.

Do you find it difficult then to get suitable content?
That’s a very good question. I don’t struggle to fill the schedule with the content that I’m after, but I’m always after better ideas. I mean this year we had a great series looking at rural life and rural affairs, which in series one came close to out-rating ‘Eastenders’. It was well above the slot average, so that was a great success. Then I’ve got wonderful old-timers such as the 14 season old ‘Lesser Spotted Ulster’, which again was scoring 29 per cent audience share at peak-time this week. So between the new and the old I’m always looking for returning series. That’s probably my biggest issue actually. I have a couple of returning series but I’d like more.

What’s the biggest single aspect of the television industry that has changed since you began your career?
I think the breaking down of barriers to entry. The price of making relevant content has fallen. It means that, maybe not in long-form but certainly in short-form, almost anybody can become a producer if they have a great idea. We’ve got kids leaving school that are capable of making broadcast-quality content.

How is the digital switchover going to affect UTV?
Looking at the way the other ITV regions have been affected, I’m not sure that it’s going to affect us at all to be quite honest. We’re clearly going to have greater competition in the market, but we already have a very strong market position. While RTÉ will be available in the North on DTT, it’s already available on Sky and cable so anyone who wants it has it already, so I’m not expecting that to be a major change. I think that it will give us a chance to promote our digital assets more and to drive people to services like U.tv. We are about to launch a new app and a new mobile website. Both of those will be launched before the end of the year. I think anything with the word digital scares a part of the audience but I thing that once they find out that it’s a fairly standard process I think that it will help us push other digital assets.

A significant number of analogue TV viewers in the Republic will no longer receive UTV unless they opt for a paid digital service, will that affect commercial revenues?
You know not much will change for us in the Republic. We’ll still be available on UPC. We aren’t currently available on Sky but, contrary to what I initially thought, I learnt yesterday that the digital signal travels further than the analogue signal so I’m not expecting it to have a huge audience change. As long as the audience has a box for the Southern DTT services, they should be able to get us. In the North, if you have the freeview HD box then the audience shouldn’t lose any of the Southern service. So depending on which technology the viewer buys or has, there shouldn’t be a huge change. Again, anyone who wants us in the South will get us now on cable anyway so there’s no change in that.

Is it important that UTV maintains a Northern Irish identity in terms of its content?
Yeah, again a good question. We are Northern Ireland’s TV station. We’re not a Northern Ireland service. We are licenced by Offcom to serve the Northern Ireland region and I think that we are successful in that because we are very of our patch. We have great in-vision continuity, people like Julian [Simmons] who are known across the whole of the island. Our content, stuff like ‘UTV Live Tonight’ are known across the island but they are specifically of the North. And then we’ve got the best of the ITV networks so you’ve got ‘Coronation Street’, ‘X-Factor’, ‘Dancing On Ice’, ‘I’m a Celebrity’ coming up etc, which are the big box-office items but let’s not forget our local programming. Our news show, two nights ago which is the last one we have figures for, scored 43 per cent audience share. I mean these are impressive ratings and show that our team are delivering the sort of content that our audience is after.

You mentioned earlier the move to apps and mobile, is that important? Making sure content is available on all platforms?
Yeah we launched an internal project called UTV Everywhere about 18 months ago and it was where we felt we should commercially deliver content so the first stage of that was revamping the website and we’ve got a strong player proposition now. We’ve already got the BETA version running as the mobile website which is absolutely superb, and was all developed in-house. And it is actually really impressive. And that should be out within the next four-six weeks and the app should launch after that.

We aren’t going for every platform, we’re not delivering an iPad app because actually the mobile version is so good we would hope that iPad users would go to mobile but on iPhone and Android phone. The app I think is better than the web version. We’ve got a lot of high quality content, the technology is changing the way the audience consumes the local content, I still think shows like Corrie and ‘Emmerdale’ are watched on the big screen. But people want news wherever they can get it and I can sit quite happily when travelling & look at our website, watch a video, get the content. We’re finding ways to deliver commercial solutions into that, so sponsored apps, pre-rolls at the right levels and the right durations. So there’s a learning curve for all broadcasters and content makers. We’re on that journey as well. We’re confident with the product and we’re very confident with the audience reaction to them actually.

Do you think it’ll ever come to the stage where you’ll make a commissioning decision based on the viewership it might reach on catch-up services?
Well I’m never going to say never but I mean the key revenue is still on the television screen. The mass market is still through the television screen. And I think that’s the same for all audio-visual content makers. But we’ve seen fashions change. We’ve heard phrases like ‘360 Commissioning’ and things like that, and we all know what it means in practice but in reality I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a true 360 Commission.

We don’t use phrases like that here. The online additional content is reducing. We’re going for our core product and we’re trying to make them available on all platforms but first and foremost we’re a television provider. But high quality television should be able to translate wherever the audience wants it, so no I’m not going to make something that’s a wow on the web but nobody watches it in our slots between ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Emmerdale’. I think that would be counter-productive for the business.

What’s the biggest challenge for broadcasters going forward?
I think the biggest challenge for public-service broadcasters is staying relevant to the audience as there’s more commercial competition. We need to make our content relevant, maintain our high audiences but actually I don’t think the future is as dark as some forecast. We’ve had multi-channel television across the island of Ireland for a very long time, with RTÉ being available in the North and us being available in the South there’s been more competition in this marketplace then almost anywhere else and everybody is still in a very strong position who delivers high quality content.

There is no race for the bottom and I think the danger is when that starts, we won’t be the ones who start it, we want to stay as a high quality PSB but we’ve got to maintain our relationship with the audience on multiple platforms now, it’s not just a single relationship through the TV screen.

You’ve been at UTV for more than six years now. What are you proudest of?
I don’t even have to pause on that one, I’m proudest of launching ‘UTV Live Tonight’, the most-watched news and current affairs programme on commercial television in late evening. It scores twice the ITV network average in that slot, the opinion formers in Northern Ireland talk about it, our UTV regions have replicated it and it’s a bloody good programme. That’s one I’m really proud about, no hesitation there.


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