UTV feels fall-out from C4 abandoning speech radio

TalkSport parent company UTV has criticised Channel 4’s “unilateral decision” to abandon its speech radio plans and pull out of a proposed new digital radio consortium.

The northern Irish broadcaster, which was planning to launch a new talk radio station on the 4Digital platform if it had gone ahead, said today that it had been surprised by the sudden announcement by Channel 4 last month that its speech radio ambitions had been shelved.

In a trading update this morning, UTV said Channel 4’s decision to pull out “undermined the business model upon which the consortium’s application was based and, consequently, it would seem unlikely that the multiplex will launch in the foreseeable future”.

Channel 4 was the majority shareholder in 4Digital – a consortium of broadcasters that won a licence from Ofcom last year to launch 10 new digital radio services.

Three Channel 4-branded stations were due to launch, including a 24-hour speech station to rival BBC Radio 4, youth brand E4 Radio and culture channel Pure4.

UTV, another shareholder in the project, was planning to bring back Talk Radio – the rolling news and talk format that was replaced by TalkSport in 2000.

“As a shareholder in the consortium which won the licence to operate the second national digital multiplex, we were surprised by the majority shareholder C4’s unilateral decision to withdraw from the provision of digital radio services,” UTV said today.

Closure

UTV also warned that it will close down its Edinburgh talk station, Talk 107, and hand the licence back to Ofcom if a buyer is not found.

The company announced last month that the station, which launched in February 2006, was up for sale after it had failed to reach its audience targets.

“It now seems unlikely that this station can be brought to profitability in a reasonable timescale, particularly in the current market conditions,” the company said.

“In the event that sale terms can’t be agreed, we would propose to close the station and return the licence to Ofcom.”

Talk 107 won the licence in 2004 to provide a 24-hour speech station for the Scottish capital.

The station predicted it would reach 140,000 listeners by the end of its first year on air. But in the latest set of audience data from Rajar, covering the summer months of 2008, Talk 107’s audience was 37,000 – down 9.8 per cent compared with the previous quarter.

Flat performance

In its trading update for the 10 months to the end of October, UTV said like-for-like revenue and operating costs were “broadly in line with last year”.

UTV, which owns the ITV franchise in Northern Ireland, said television revenues had declined by six per cent in this period compared with the same time last year.

“Each of our operating divisions continues to perform well relative to their peer groups and the positive effects of a significant cost reduction programme across the group should start to be evident in the early part of 2009,” the company said today.

One of those cost reduction measures already announced is a plan to cut jobs at UTV Television in Northern Ireland.

Cost cutting

The move has angered broadcasting union Bectu, which has accused UTV of pre-empting Ofcom’s final public service broadcasting report, which is due in the new year.

Bectu national official Pat Styles said: “UTV has seized upon the flexibilities proposed by Ofcom to make damaging cuts without reference to staff or to the audience and without any financial justification.

“Our members are facing the bleak prospect of being made redundant in the run up to Christmas – these job cuts will also dramatically reduce the amount of local programming available to the Northern Ireland audience.”

UTV Television managing director Michael Wilson responded in a statement this week: “As part of our ongoing review of UTV programming following Ofcom’s announcement, we wrote to all UTV Television staff offering them a voluntary redundancy programme.

“This is aimed at taking into account UTV’s anticipated staffing as we restructure our business and programme requirements for 2009. We have already met with local Bectu representatives twice and wrote to Pat Styles last week to arrange a further meeting.

“We are currently in the process of consulting with our staff as our preference is to secure as many redundancies as possible on a voluntary basis and we are offering one of the most generous packages in the commercial broadcasting sector.

“Until this phase of our restructuring process is over on 14 November 14, it would be inappropriate to speculate on the level of compulsory redundancies that may be required.

“Subject to regulatory agreement and consultation in 2009 UTV intends to continue to over supply against our licence commitment in the areas of news and current affairs.”

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