Screen test... can Pat Kenny save UTV Ireland?
Ireland's newest station is struggling to win an audience for its flagship programmes and the veteran broadcaster is seen by many as its trump card. But will 'Kenny in the Round' get the nation to switch on?
Senior executives at UTV Ireland may be justly proud of its state-of-the-art studio and gleaming newsroom at its headquarters near the 3Arena in Dublin's Docklands, but it was a much more venerable location on the other side of the Liffey that Ireland's newest broadcaster was focusing on this week.
The Mansion House on Dawson Street, for centuries the home of Dublin's Lord Mayor, opened its doors to UTV Ireland's biggest recruit, Pat Kenny, on Thursday. In what is likely to be the channel's marquee series this year, Pat Kenny in the Round saw the veteran broadcaster conduct an interview with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in front of a 150-strong audience. The interview, which was filmed 'as live' will be broadcast on an undisclosed date in early May, and 12 further one-hour interviews are planned.
Since going on air on January 1, UTV Ireland has struggled to reach audiences with its news and current affairs programming, while curios like Rare Breed -A Farming Year, have only been modestly successful in the ratings.
Although it boasts about being the second most watched channel for "peak-time" viewing, it relies heavily on audiences tuning into long-running soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Take those jewels out of the UTV Ireland crown, and its lustre would be considerably dulled.
The mood at the station can't have been helped with the revised projection of €8.3m losses for 2015, more than double what parent company UTV plc were predicting last year, but commercial director Daragh Byrne says the fact that the channel boasts "several heavy-hitters during peak time" resonates with brands and ad agencies. In an environment where advertising and sponsorship revenues are picking up across the board, he says, UTV Ireland are well placed to take their share.
Byrne, who left a similar role in TV3 to work for UTV, admits that having both Coronation Street and Emmerdale exclusively on UTV Ireland (previously TV3 had to share them with the 'old' UTV), helps give the station a competitive advantage in the post-6pm schedule. "Soaps are a big driver of audience and potentially to programmes before and after as well."
But the trials and tribulations at Weatherfield and the Yorkshire Dales do not seem to have helped 'drive' audiences to the station's home-grown programmes, especially the 6.30pm news bulletin Ireland Live, which has struggled since the outset to attract viewers.
On the last day of March, just 15,500 people watched Ireland Live, as opposed to 374,000 for RTE's Six One and 120,900 for TV3's News at 5.30. If anything, the market share is even more damning: Ireland Live got 1.34pc as opposed to RTÉ's 34.68pc and TV3's 14.66pc. Its one-hour programme, Live at 10, fares better. Some 40,400 watched that day and it regularly gets more than 60,000 viewers. But its market share of the available audience makes for sobering reading: it rarely nudges above 3pc.
Alison Comyn is the sole anchor on the 6.30pm bulletin and co-presents the 10pm show with Chris Donoghue. She says she is proud of what the station has achieved in a matter of months. "I am not a great one for looking at the ratings, especially in the early days," she says. "I realise it's going to take time to build up an audience but we are putting out a great product. If we're getting 15,000 people at 6.30, great. We want to keep them and we want to grow that figure."
She says she is especially happy with how "strong" she believes UTV Ireland's regional bureaux to be and believes many of those who give the station a chance are struck by the fact that there are concerted efforts to ensure that the content is not too Dublin-centric.Michael Foley, head of the media school at the Dublin Institute of Technology, says the news offering is professional and informative and notes that several staff have been recruited from RTÉ and elsewhere. But, he says, UTV Ireland has not yet had a significant impact on Irish broadcasting.
"It pulls people in for the big British soaps, but clearly they aren't staying for the other content," he says. "And that puzzles me. Why can't they have an impact with their home-produced content?
"There's a sense that it hasn't engaged with the population on many of the big issues of the day, and they seem willing to let Prime Time and Tonight With Vincent Browne tackle the subjects that are very pertinent in Ireland right now, such as water charges and the marriage referendum. I think the competition has upped its game, especially TV3."
David McRedmond, TV3's CEO, believes his station has comfortably withstood the blows. "We've retained 85pc of our audience despite the loss of Coronation Street and Emmerdale," he says. "Both of them were costing us an awful lot of money to air and, in truth, their audiences were declining steadily for years.
"We've developed our own soap, Red Rock, which is getting 200,000 consolidated viewers (meaning those who watch live or on TV3 Player) and our new nightly news bulletin, airing at 8pm - the most common time for the main evening news on the continent - has been very well received."
McRedmond, who describes UTV Ireland's news and current affairs offering as "competent", is bullish about TV3's future and points out that it has exclusive Irish rights for the "sporting event of the year", the Rugby World Cup.
"Last week, we had started selling (commercial) packages for it and it has been a phenomenon success."
By contrast, UTV Ireland's sport offering is decidedly threadbare. It won the Irish rights to show the Carl Frampton boxing match in February, but it - like RTÉ - will have to look on enviously as arguably Ireland's best ever rugby side attempts to land its first World Cup trophy in the autumn.
Michael Cullen, editor of Marketing magazine, says it has been obvious that both RTÉ and TV3 have risen to the challenge and believes UTV executives "will surely be disappointed" with how its own content has been received.
"They haven't done anything that is striking as of yet," he says. "They've invested a lot in Pat Kenny and they'll have to be hoping that he can deliver the sort of ratings and appointment-TV programming that they crave."
An RTÉ current affairs staffer, who does not wish to be named "because several of my ex-colleagues are working at UTV," believes the news offering is too "dry" and viewers are looking for something different.
'RTÉ do straight news better than anyone and TV3 have taken a lively, tabloidy approach that seems to be working, so any new entrant to the market should be doing something different. There's scope there for personality-driven current affairs with robust opinion - it's surprising they haven't gone down that route."
She believes many at Montrose have been bemused by the way UTV Ireland is using Pat Kenny. "There's genuine shock here that they aren't doing a Frontline-type programme with Pat at the helm. I'd have thought that's what he would wanted to have done, not least because he was annoyed about how his show was cancelled here and also because with a general election just a year away there's so much scope for a programme like that.
"The show he's doing sounds a bit like Piers Morgan's Life Stories and the fact that it isn't live, detracts too."
UTV acknowledge the comparisons with Life Stories but insist that unlike the controversial Englishman's series, "the focus will be on the interviewee, not Pat". It has a certain figure in mind when it comes to the ratings, but the channel is remaining tight-lipped on that.
When UTV plc announced that it would enter the Republic's market in November 2013, managing director Michael Wilson was confident a new channel could hit the ground running, especially as UTV had been a feature of Irish life from 1959.
He told Weekend Review he was confident that UTV Ireland could move into profit within a year.
"I don't want to be glib," he said, "but we're not in the business of losing money. We will be offering the consumer more choice, especially when it comes to news and a nightly one-hour news bulletin will be a big selling point for the station."
Thus far that bulletin doesn't appear to be as big a selling point as he might have hoped, but as Michael Foley adds these are still early days. "There is still plenty of time to turn things around," he says, pointing to how the beleaguered Radio Ireland blossomed when it was reinvented as Today FM. "But it won't be easy."
Daragh Byrne, meanwhile, is convinced that UTV Ireland will grow and grow. "Before January 1, we had no audience. Now, we're the second most popular after RTÉ One for peak-time viewing.
"We've come a long way really quickly. And we're learning all the time. There's a real hunger here - everyone's working as hard as possible to make sure that viewers turn the dial to us."