Ulster upbeat about advertising revenues

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Strong advertising revenues helped Ulster Television report a 14 per cent increase in group sales and a 4 per cent increase in overall operating profits for 2003, the company said yesterday.

Strong advertising revenues helped Ulster Television report a 14 per cent increase in group sales and a 4 per cent increase in overall operating profits for 2003, the company said yesterday.

However, although the company, which holds the ITV franchise for Northern Ireland, reported television advertising up 2.1 per cent, it still saw profits from its television business fall from £12.3m to £11.8m in 2003.

The decline in profits was due in part to an increased contribution by Ulster to the ITV network's programming costs. However, it said that since the merger of Carlton and Granada, which took effect last month, regulators have agreed to safeguard Ulster's ability to influence the network programme budget and how it is allocated.

The company remained upbeat about the prospects for this year, reporting that TV advertising revenues were expected to be 10 per cent up in the first quarter, suggesting the nascent recovery in spending is starting to gather speed.

Ulster said that its 2.1 per cent increase in television revenues in 2003 was the fourth consecutive year it had outperformed its larger ITV counterparts, which saw a 3.4 per cent decline last year.

It also confirmed that it had considered making a bid last September for SMG, its Scottish rival which has the ITV franchise north of the border. However, Ulster rejected the idea as the SMG share price rose beyond a level at which it was willing to bid.

The SMG share price has soared over the past year, partly due to constant speculation about possible bids from rival media players and private equity groups. Ulster, however, said that a bid for SMG was not on its agenda at the moment.

Ulster reported group sales up 14 per cent to £54m with operating profit up 4 per cent to £15.1m.

A strong performer for the company was its internet business, which increased revenues in 2003 to £3.6m from £2m in 2002. The success was attributed largely to the launch of flat-rate internet services in the Irish Republic and the extension of its Northern Irish broadband service into the Republic. Operating profit margins from the internet business rose to 22 per cent from 15 per cent.

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