The governing body of the Independent Television network, the Independent Television Authority, first advertised the franchise for Northern Ireland in September 1958. Two consortia applied for the franchise; one led by the Duke of Abercorn and supported by The Belfast Telegraph and The Northern Whig newspapers, the other led by the Earl of Antrim and supported by The News Letter and Sir Laurence Olivier. The ITA eventually persuaded both applicants to merge their bids to obtain the new franchise, on the provision that a greater stake of investment in the station was offered to Catholic sources.
With the ITA request met, the group, under the name Ulster Television Limited, set out their plans for broadcasting; initially, the station would try to provide 20 minutes of locally-sourced programmes per day, and the company arranged with ABC Television to sell advertising time and to maintain their studio premises at a former hemstitching warehouse in Havelock House on the Ormeau Road in Belfast.
Ulster Television went on air at 4.45pm on Saturday 31 October 1959. The station's opening was overseen by Lord Wakehurst, then Governor of Northern Ireland, and Sir Laurence Olivier introduced the opening ceremony. The station's first night of programming, introduced by duty announcer Adrienne McGuill, featured networked series such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and 77 Sunset Strip, two news bulletins from ITN and the 1949 feature film Task Force. Sir Laurence Olivier delivered the station's first epilogue, an excerpt from Joseph Addison's "The Spacious Firmament".
The following evening, UTV contributed a play to the Armchair Theatre series, A Shilling for the Evil Day, produced in association with ABC Television. Earlier in the day, the station broadcast its first unofficial colour production - a film of images from across Northern Ireland was broadcast entitled Ulster Rich and Rare, produced by Lord Wakehurst.
At launch, Ulster Television employed a staff of 100 people including six presenters: Ivor Mills and Anne Gregg were chosen as the presenters of local magazine programme Roundabout, Adrienne McGuill, James Greene and Brian Durkin were the first continuity announcers, and former rugby union international Ernest Strathdee was recruited as the station's sports presenter.
Initially, Ulster Television's programmes would only be available to viewers served by the Black Mountain transmitter. However, it was reported on the station's first night of programmes that Dublin residents had called the station to report poor picture reception. Coverage of UTV spread to Western areas of Northern Ireland when the Strabane transmitter opened in February 1963.
Ulster Television's UHF PAL colour service was launched with the opening of the UHF transmitter Divis in September 1970. This was followed by two additional transmitters at Limavady (opened in 1975) and Brougher Mountain (in 1978). The station was the last in the ITV network to begin 24-hour transmission in 1988.
At the company's annual general meeting in Belfast on 26 May 2006, the registered company name was changed from 'Ulster Television plc' to 'UTV plc'. The company believed that the existing name no longer reflected the full scope of the company's business. In a further change in October 2007, UTV underwent a corporate reorganisation which saw UTV shareholders swap their shares for shares in a new holding company, UTV Media plc, which took over UTV plc's shareholdings in the new media and radio subsidiaries. UTV Ltd. - the original Ulster Television Limited, now a wholly owned subsidiary of UTV Media - has returned to being solely the operating company for the ITV franchise.
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