Ulster Logo History Ulster

"UTV needs more people, more equipment, more space and clearly a bigger programme budget"
Belfast Evening Telegraph, January 1960

"The area also has its own set of sharp and often bitter political tensions"
Pilkington Committee

Ulster Television History


Enquiries had been received from as early as 1956, but over 90% of the UK's population had already been covered by an ITV station by the time that Northern Ireland came to the top of the ITA list, at more or less the same time as consideration was being given to a commercial station in the Republic of Ireland (an idea in the end rejected in favour of a public authority, now RTE).

The franchise was advertised on 2 September, to broadcast from Black Mountain, to the west of Belfast. Five local groups were formed, with the task of producing their application in just over a month. Two finally emerged: one chaired by the Duke of Abercorn, with the main support coming from the Belfast Evening Telegraph and Northern Whig newspapers; the other led by the Earl of Antrim, with the involvement of Sir Laurence Olivier, Betty Box and the Newsletter group. There were also applications made by Associated Rediffusion and Granada, hopeful as ever.

ITA plays matchmaker

The ITA was keen to bring the two local consortia together, but sounding the two parties out made it clear that this was not a possibility. After interviews on 4 November 1958 the Antrim group was preferred, possibly because they offered to make 25% of its shareholding available to others. Of the initial capital issued only 4% was owned by Catholic bodies, and with the ITA's encouragement this was increased to 17.5% to 28 new investors, including the newspaper the Irish News.

Money jitters

Ulster Television Limited, as the group was now called, recognised that they were short of practical television experience, and were facing a tough financial position, with prospect initially of serving only 100,000 homes, although there was the longer term promise by the ITA to open a relay in western areas beyond the reach of Black Mountain. Initially they presented a plan of programmes with plenty of promises which did not match up to their single studio facility, which had neither recording equipment, nor any outside broadcast capability. Not for the first time a company tried to soften the position taken during the franchise application. They presented a plan where initially they would limit local production to 20 minutes per day, without a local news bulletin, and that they would not carry some of the more 'serious' programmes from the network, substituting popular programmes made previously. These plans were sent to the ITA not by UTV itself, but ABC, with whom UTV had signed an affiliation agreement. As well as providing general support, ABC were to sell UTV's advertising for some years, and supervised their studios at Havelock House, a former clothing warehouse.

On the air

The first person on Ulster television was Sir Laurence Olivier, in the unlikely guise as the host of a Hallowe'en party. A speech was given by Lord Wakehurst, followed by six schoolboys from Belfast and the singer Richard Hayward. After a brief look forward to new programmes they joined the network for Robin Hood, and had no further local content apart from commercials until Sir Laurence Olivier returned to read the epilogue. The only recorded complaints on opening night related to poor reception experienced in Dublin.

Apart from a single programme the following day showing traditional country crafts local programming was confined to the Runabout magazine until the following January, when local output was raised to four hours, and later in that year to the originally promised six.

The finances improve

The audience share UTV gained was high; for Roundabout it regularly reached 80%. In the first six months all the previous expenditure had been paid off, and profits were already being made. The number of homes had shot up to 160,000 at the time of the first birthday, with 100,000 of these buying the UTV programme guide TV Post. By 1962 they could afford to buy an Ampex VTR and equip a studio twice the size of their existing one, and replace Roundabout with a more newsy programme. Finally they reached the west of their region (and more of the Republic) when the Strabane transmitter was opened.



Black Mountain  9H 31/10/59
Strabane        8V 18/02/63
Ballycastle    13H 06/07/70 


Divis             24H 14/09/70
Limavady          59H 01/12/75
Brougher Mountain 25H 1978

Ulster index Programmes Addresses ITW