THE FIRST time most viewers in Ireland heard about Tara Television was late last year, when a person watching the Late Late Show live on the Tara channel in Britain phoned RTE. VINCENT WALL talks to David Fitzgerald, managing director of Tara Communications.THE FIRST time most viewers in Ireland heard about Tara Television was late last year, when a person watching the Late Late Show live on the Tara channel in Britain phoned RTE. VINCENT WALL talks to David Fitzgerald, managing director of Tara Communications.
But the caller was phoning from one of up to half a million homes across channel which now receive Tara on their cable network and with it a package of live, current and archive material from RTE's programming schedule.
RTE, in fact, provides up to 80pc of Tara's 12-hour daily output and the semi-State broadcasting organisation last autumn formally agreed to take a 20pc stake in the new company.
The balance of the shareholding is controlled by United International Holdings, a Nasdaq-listed company which provides cabled television programming to 24 countries outside the United States. It owns 75pc, while RCL, an Irish-based telecommunications company owned by entrepreneur John O'Riordan holds the remaining 5pc. Tara TV is currently capitalised at £10m.
The company was actually established in 1995, but only began trading in earnest from the autumn of 1996, when current managing director, David Fitzgerald came on board.
Dublin-born Fitzgerald, who was educated at Trinity College, has spent all his working life as a producer and programme controller in the British independent television sector. He acknowledges that there have been problems with the cable TV industry generally in Britain but expresses satisfaction at the penetration levels achieved by Tara.
``In just over a year we have managed to bring Tara to 25pc of the total number of homes in Britain, which are taking cable television. And our target is to double this penetration to around a million householders during 1998.
``It's true that the pace of both cable provision and cable uptake by those who have access to it has been painfully slow, but this is primarily due to the restructuring that has been taking place in the industry and to the ownership bias of the industry itself.
According to Fitzgerald, many of the cable companies operating in Britain were unable or unwilling to take significant business decisions last year because of the major merger process, which eventually led to the union of Bell Cable Media, Nynex, Videotron with the cable division of Cable & Wireless to form CWC.
``In addition, many of the companies which have been operating in Britain are American and from a telecommunications background and do not understand the British market fully, nor the demands of its television viewers.
``But all this will change and we believe in the digital age, cable will be one of three delivery systems for television in tandem with satellite and terrestrial broadcasting. Tara needs to be delivered on all of these systems within the next five years.
So what exactly is the audience for Tara's output in Britain and how has the product been received to date?
``There is a huge interest in things Irish in Britain at the moment and the average British person is now coming into contact with a much broader range of Irish people than had been the case a generation ago. While the difficulties in the North are still obviously with us, people in Britain are also coming to realise that both islands have much more in common in terms of culture and lifestyle than was previously thought.
``The difficulty therefore is not persuading viewers, but the gatekeepers of the cable industry itself, who do not necessarily equate Ireland with quality television programming,'' Fitzgerald adds.
But he insists that once the cable operators have been shown what Tara has to offer, they are more than happy to include the product in their standard packages channels.
``Executives in the industry have used expressions like ``BBC 1 with an Irish flavour'' or ``Britain's sixth terrestrial channel'' to us. Without exception all of our negotiations with cable operators now are about when rather than if we will be carried on their network.
Tara is currently available in large areas of south west England around Bristol, in the West Midlands, north London, areas of the Home Counties and Yorkshire. Next year coverage is expected to extend to West London, Manchester, Glasgow and possibly Aberdeen.
``There is also the possibility of extending the service through UIH's interests in Europe to cities like Amsterdam, Brussels, Vienna and other metropolitan areas where English is a significant second language,'' David Fitzgerald says. ``We are also talking to people in South Africa at the moment and, in the longer term, Australia, Canada and New Zealand look like promising markets for us.''
Tara's key attraction as far as he is concerned is the quality of its output. ``We see ourselves as a quality TV channel from Ireland for all of Britain or whatever other market we target; not just for Irish people living there. The Irish population is merely a platform from which we will grow to service the entire potential audience available and we will fiercely resist any attempt to bundle us into a package of so-called ethnic channels by any particular operator.''
The image of Ireland which Tara projects is unapologetically positive and upbeat. ``Ireland is a young, dynamic country and while it's not always appreciated by a domestic audience this is now increasingly reflected in RTE's output - witness the recent radical revamp of Network Two. We won't be focusing on pothole problems or other stereotype issues. But remember, up to 30pc of our coverage is live, including news bulletins and current affairs programmes, so the coverage will be balanced.
On the all-important issue of finance, David Fitzgerald argues that setting up any new type of broadcast entity is expensive. The company employs 13 operational staff in Dublin putting the schedule together and beaming it by satellite to various receiver points in Britain. A marketing team of seven people is employed in London.
``Our target is to make operational profits within four to five years. But in the meantime, we will be paying RTE up to £400,000 per annum in fees and rents, which will serve as a useful contribution to its overheads in these competitive times.''.