UTV has vowed to go head-to-head with RTÉ and TV3 in a battle for Irish television viewers with a new station based in Dublin.
Bosses revealed surprise plans for the channel – which they say will be on air by 2015 – a day after signing a deal with British TV giant ITV for exclusive rights to popular soaps 'Coronation Street' and 'Emmerdale'.
John McCann, group chief executive of parent company UTV Media, said that agreement yesterday afternoon set the wheels in motion for the new station, which is expected to employ 100 people.
“It’s as simple as that – we were able to do a deal with ITV,” he said.
Commercial rival TV3, which currently airs the British soaps in Ireland, claimed they were losing money on the shows.
UTV Ireland, which will be based in Dublin’s Docklands, close to where the company runs a stable of local radio stations, will replicate its model in the North.
Schedules will be based around ITV’s offering of current affairs, entertainment and drama, with local shows and news bulletins slotted in to customise the channel for an Irish audience.
The only homegrown show already planned is a peak-time one-hour evening news programme, anchored in Dublin and taking in reports from bases in Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick.
Station chiefs have refused to disclose what time the flagship news programme will air.
Michael Wilson, managing director of UTV, said the plan is to increase the number of Irish-made shows, using independent producers in Ireland.
He said: “In terms of where we see our sights, let me be absolutely clear – we are a mainstream public service broadcaster, we are aiming to go head-to-head with RTE and TV3.
“We aim to be the first choice for viewers in Ireland and that’s our goal.”
An application to run the station was submitted this morning to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).
UTV expects to hear just after Christmas if it has been successful.
Officials claim the new channel will break even in its first year on air and be profitable by 2016.
Of the 100 new jobs, it is expected around half will be editorial with other roles including transmission, scheduling, sales and advertising.
Mr Wilson said staff who lost their jobs at UTV in Belfast in recent months could apply for the new roles in Dublin.
The “restructuring” in Northern Ireland was part of preparations for the new venture, he added.
Mr Wilson refused to say if UTV considered a takeover of cash-strapped TV3 before launching plans for a rival station.
David McRedmond, TV3 chief executive, played down suggestions that losing 'Coronation Street' and 'Emmerdale' would deal a devastating blow to the Ballymount broadcaster.
“We were losing money on the soaps,” he said.
“Every year we were paying millions and millions to ITV in London for this programming while starving independent producers and TV3 producers of budgets.
“The good news here for the independent sector and TV3 producers is all that money now goes into production in Ireland.”
The TV boss said the soaps accounted for 20% of the station’s viewership.
Plans are under way for a new home-grown soap opera to be aired on the station.
Hit shows on TV3 like 'Downton Abbey', 'Uefa Champions League' and 'The X Factor' will remain unaffected as individual contracts have been signed with the producers.
Mr McRedmond said TV3 remains a valuable company with a unique position in Irish broadcasting.
Pat Rabbitte, Communications Minister, admitted he was taken by surprise at the UTV announcement but added any new investment in Ireland has to be welcomed.
“One has to be positive about it, it’s more competition,” he said.
“There will be challenges, there’s no doubt about this decision – UTV is well established on the island of Ireland, their reputation is well known.
“But we’re a small market. There are finite resources. There’s no doubt about that, broadcasters have taken a serious hit as a result of the challenges they faced in the fall in advertising.”
Mr Rabbitte, who will meet UTV executives today, also warned that there might be questions to answer over the level of advertising UTV is allowed in the Irish market.
UTV Media already employs more than 300 people in a number of media businesses south of the border, including FM104 and Q102 in Dublin as well as Cork’s 96FM.