Battle stations: how under fire TV3 is fighting back
Will UPC give its new network the muscle to survive in the cut-throat world of TV?
It was called 'Project Seville'. Nobody at TV3 seems to know how the name was arrived at, but it was the strategy the station, based in Ballymount, west Dublin, enacted to make sure it was ready for the threat posed by UTV Ireland, who launched amid much fanfare and chest-beating on January 1.
"They had their tanks on our front lawn," TV3's CEO David McRedmond says. "So we had to fight back. We had to make sure everyone here was at the top of their game, and they were."
McRedmond has good reason to feel happy, some seven months on from the UTV launch. While that station has consistently struggled to engage with audiences and suffered some pitifully low ratings (the nadir arrived last month when just 4,000 viewers tuned in for its early evening news bulletin to 5.30pm), TV3 has had a buoyant 2015, having launched its own soap, Red Rock, which is in the process of being sold to a US broadcaster, and in the autumn it will air all 48 matches of the Rugby World Cup.
"It's the biggest sporting event of the year," McRedmond says, "and it shows the intent of the station." It was the first major tournament that RTE was outbid on, and the loss will be felt acutely in Montrose when the action kicks off on September 18.
"As it happens, I think RTE do sport very well," the TV3 boss says, "but they don't have a God-given right to show all the best events.
"Incidentally, we're keen to show viewers just how well we can cover rugby, and with a young, exciting panel. It will be different to what people would have been used to on RTE, but it won't be gimmicky."
If there's a positive buzz among staff at TV3 right now, it's likely to be down to the fact that the station's short-term future, at the very least, has been secured thanks to its acquisition by US cable giant, Liberty Global, of which UPC is a subsidiary, and is owned by Irish American John Malone.
"The fact that it's a media company means a lot," a TV3 staffer says. "There was a real sense of relief when the news was relayed to us the other day. People had been worried."
Head of news, Andrew O'Hanlon, is hopeful that there will be more money to invest in an operation that's currently conducted in a cramped, windowless newsroom in the rather soulless building that TV3 have had since launch in 1998.
The HD studio, a minute's walk away in Ballymount Industrial Estate, is a far more inspiring place, especially when celebrity interviewees, and such, from abroad are on the promotional circuit.
"There's an awful lot of pride here," O'Hanlon says. "TV3 is a small company - only 250 staff - but there's been a sense of everyone pulling together and doing the very best they can.
"We've worked hard to create programmes that deliver the news in a concise and engaging way and it's taken time to do that. We've recently created a news programme that goes out at 8pm, which is the typical airtime on the continent, and it is likely to take a number of years before it reaches the sort of audience that we're confident it can command."
In its early days, TV3 was repeatedly criticised for its low quotient of home-made programmes, but that's certainly not the case today with two of its shows, Ireland AM and Xpose, among the most established on Irish television. The former has been consistently pulling in viewers for 16 years, and saw off RTE's short-lived breakfast offering, Morning Edition.
"You can't get complacent in this business," Ireland AM producer Celine McGillycuddy says. "We constantly ask ourselves 'is such-and-such an item real and relevant?' 'Are we engaging with our viewers?'"
Such is the confidence in Ireland AM in Ballymount that Saturday and Sunday editions will commence next month. Ireland AM regular Anna Daly will anchor alongside actor Simon Delaney on Saturdays and politician-turned-broadcaster Ivan Yates on Sundays.
"We feel there's plenty of room for a programme like that at weekends," McGillycuddy says, "and it will feel quite different to the mid-week edition, not least because it will have a much wider, and very different audience."
Long ago, TV3 identified females as its target audience and it set about devising programmes for them. While some women would likely be put off by the light and fluffy approach of Xpose, there's no doubt this fashion 'n' celebrity magazine programme has proved a hit with a certain demographic.
"It's not just women in their 20s who are watching us," says Debbie O'Donnell, "it's mothers and daughters too. We started off in the height of the Celtic Tiger and had to change it dramatically when recession hit, but just because the country was in the doldrums didn't mean that people didn't want escapism.
"What we always say about Xpose is it's our viewers' little treat, that piece of chocolate during the day."
That piece of chocolate got a lot bigger last September when its runtime went from a brisk 30 minutes to a full hour. "The items are still delivered really quickly," O'Donnell says. "And busy viewers can have it on in the background and dip in and out."
If TV3's home-grown content, epitomised by Red Rock's €7m budget, has grown exponentially, there's also a feeling of less reliance on dumbed-down content than before. The station has recently broadcast a state-of-nation series, Ireland - What Next?, that was noticeable for its high-production values. It was certainly poles apart from the tawdry fly-on-the-wall series, Tallafornia, which was panned in 2013.
"We didn't all agree internally on Tallafornia," Andrew O'Hanlon says. "It certainly wasn't my cup of tea, and I wasn't impressed by it at all. But just like a newspaper, a TV station should have a mix of content, and that's certainly what TV3 is trying to do."
Some were surprised when TV3 bought the rights for Big Brother, a format many had felt was long past its prime.
"Channel 5 really invigorated it when they took it on," David McRedmond says, "and it's done really well for us.''
Last year, much was made about the loss of veteran soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale to UTV Ireland, but McRedmond says the commentary around them was overstated.
"The truth is, they were costing us an awful lot of money. It's far better for us to invest in something like Red Rock.
''That can make us money."