CEO Q&A: John McCann, Group chief executive, UTV Media

By Niamh Mac Sweeney
27 December 2014
John McCann

John McCann speaks to Niamh Mac Sweeney about UTV’s ambitious plans for Ireland and outlines why it’s an exciting time for both the company and its viewers.

Q: Can you tell me about some of the recent developments for UTV in Ireland? 

A: The most important, and indeed, exciting development for UTV will be the launch of UTV Ireland on January 1st 2015.

This multi-million euro investment for UTV will bring together high-quality news, current affairs and domestic programming commissioned specifically for the Irish audience.

Broadcasting from our new studios beside the 3Arena in Dublin, the new television channel will have satellite studios in Cork, Limerick, Galway, Derry and Belfast, enabling it to reach out across the country and to reflect every aspect of life in modern Ireland.

Q: With the launch of UTV Ireland, what does this mean for the company and for the industry in general?

A: The launch of UTV Ireland will create opportunities for many in the industry, whether directly through employment or indirectly through the commissioning of programmes and related services. It will, of course, also generate competition which tends to benefit the consumer, in this case the viewer.

For the company, the launch of UTV Ireland is a significant step towards becoming the leading broadcaster in Ireland. UTV’s radio stations in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Louth and Meath are already market leaders in their areas and our television station in Northern Ireland is not only the most watched channel in the North, but also in the whole of the UK.

Our goal for UTV Ireland is that it will enjoy the same success as its sister channel in Northern Ireland.

Q: What are your main priorities and goals in your role at UTV?

A: My current priority is to get UTV Ireland launched and to establish it as a firm favourite with both the viewers and the advertisers. As with any new venture, it will take time to bed down and we will need to constantly review and fine-tune our output to respond to the viewers’ needs and preferences.

It’s in the nature of any start-up to incur losses in the early stages, but we are confident that we can move UTV Ireland to break even, and subsequent profitability, within a reasonable time-frame.

As a public company, we need to be able to demonstrate that we can achieve a decent return on our investment in UTV Ireland and our shareholders have been very supportive of the project.

Despite the severity and length of the recession, which hit the media industry in Ireland particularly hard, UTV has remained strongly profitable and cash generative throughout the last few difficult years and, with its market-leading broadcast assets both in Ireland and UK, is well placed to take advantage of the improving economic conditions.

Q: What is your view of the entertainment industry in Ireland as a whole and how has this affected UTV’s performance?

A: The entertainment industry in Ireland has been hit hard by the recession. In broadcast, advertising revenues for the industry have been down by around 50% from the peak in 2007.

UTV has performed somewhat better than this mainly due to the fact that our Irish radio stations enjoy market-leading positions in each of the areas that they operate.

Despite the recession, our broadcast businesses in Ireland have remained profitable throughout and the Irish market continues to be very important to us.

Q: How important is it to maintain a skilled workforce and how does UTV attract highly skilled professionals?    

A: In the course of this year, we will have created a further 120 much needed new jobs in Ireland, bringing our total employment number across the Group to almost 1,000. Most of these jobs are highly skilled and well-paid.

Success for any company, and indeed any country, will be determined by the quality of its workforce and Ireland is fortunate in having a well-educated population with a ‘can do’ attitude.

The pace of change in the industry is such that training is a lifelong process which keeps the individual, and the company, competitive.

UTV has always been able to attract skilled professionals of the highest calibre, who maintain UTV’s position as a leading broadcaster.

This ‘virtuous circle’ continues to be the key to UTV’s success.

Q: What are the main challenges you face in the industry and how is UTV adapting to the pace of change?

A: The length and severity of the recession has been by far the biggest challenge we have faced in many years, but rapid technological change is always challenging.

Technological change brought about digital broadcasting and digital multiplied the number of broadcast channels competing for viewers and also revenue.

Technological change also brought about a plethora of online activities, all of which compete with broadcasters for the attention of viewers and listeners.

Surprisingly, perhaps, online hasn’t really been the disruptor to the broadcast industry as it has been to other industries, such as publishing.

Viewership to traditional linear television remains incredibly strong and listenership to radio is also robust.

Indeed, online activity is often complementary to broadcasting. For example, where viewers to a television programme will often be using a second screen device to share opinions on the programme with their friends, or where listeners to a radio programme will, at the same time, be online. The key, of course, to retaining strong viewership and listenership, is attractive programming.

Our broadcast business model is relatively simple – deliver the highest possible audience and sell that audience as effectively as possible to advertisers.

The hard bit, and the one that generally broadcasters are most likely to get wrong, is providing programming that people want to watch or listen to.

Fortunately, UTV has a track record in delivering market-leading audiences in both television and radio and this has been key to the Group’s success.

Q: How do you motivate your team and how do you define success?     

A: Every CEO has to have a strategy, or vision, for the company which he/she can articulate and turn into a series of objectives within a business plan. The achievement of that business plan is subject to effective execution by the executive team.

Therein lies one of the most important skills of any CEO – the ability to recruit and motivate senior executives. Motivation comes in many forms, but I believe the most important motivator is to create a culture where people enjoy their work.

People are more likely to enjoy their work if they have a clear understanding of what is required from them, if they feel challenged but supported, if they are able to take decisions without constantly looking over their shoulder and if they have some fun as well. I hope that’s the culture that I’ve helped to create at UTV.

Our executive meetings are robust and challenging, but are always laced with good humour and support for one another. The test as to whether this works or not is in the achievement of objectives, which is the real measure of success.