Red alert: how TV3 raised the stakes with Red Rock Amazon Prime deal
Our reporter on what this week's Amazon Prime deal for 'Red Rock' says about TV3 and its future
One of my stranger journalistic experiences this year came when interviewing former EastEnders actor Shaun Williamson (aka Barry). We were talking about his post-soap career and I casually inquired if he still watched the hit BBC show.
"Sometimes," he demurred. "But do you know what I really love? Red Rock. It's amazing. One of the best out there."
This was a surprise as Williamson lives in north London - not exactly a heartland for TV3, which debuted the drama last January. "It's alright," he winked. "I have a friend in Ireland who sorts me out with Red Rock. Can't get enough of it."
The actor could well be the first of many international viewers to fall for the acclaimed seaside romp with the announcement that Red Rock is to be streamed on Amazon Prime, the internet retailer's answer to Netflix. In an agreement worth a rumoured $1m, 80 episodes of the series will be made available for the binge-watching pleasure of soap devotees globally.
The Amazon deal is merely the latest coup for Red Rock, a rollicking blend of police procedural and kitchen sink drama. It enjoys a healthy average viewership of 190,000 per episode (compared to the half a million or so tuning into RTÉ's Fair City) and has received two IFTAs (for the record, I wrote a negative review of its first episode: it has since improved dramatically).
The triumph will be doubly sweet for TV3 as Red Rock was widely perceived as a rearguard action ahead of the loss of Coronation Street and Emmerdale, the two jewels in its evening schedule, to newcomer UTVIreland.
Far from shrivelling in the face of the challenge from north of border, however, TV3 has arguably had one of its most successful years in 2015, out-bidding RTÉ for the rights to the Rugby World Cup and, for good measure, securing exclusive coverage of the Six Nations Championship from 2018.
It has also acquired a corporate sugar daddy in Liberty Global, which in July purchased TV3 for €87m via its Irish UPC subsidiary (to confuse matters, UPC was then folded into the Liberty's UK-based Virgin Media).
The new owners have made it clear they see TV3 as a growth business rather than a cash-cow and plan to invest heavily in both programming and infrastructure (TV3 already operates Ireland's largest high-definition television studio, which it has leased to networks from Scotland and Scandinavia).
But it's the success of Red Rock that arguably says the most about TV3 and its freshly-acquired swagger. When the show arrived at the beginning of the year, the biggest surprise was its high production values. With previous home-produced content such as Tallafornia, TV3 had earned a reputation for unexpurgated tackiness.
Yet Red Rock demonstrated Ballymount could carry off prestige television as well as - if not better - than RTÉ. The positive impact on its brand has been immense (RTÉ in contrast has tried in vain to flog its big prestige property of 2015, political biopic Charlie, overseas).
"Red Rock is pitched as a mainstream show that still feels perhaps edgier and set more in the [real] world. The problem with contemporary soaps is that they feel slightly removed from reality perhaps," show-runner Gareth Philips told me when I visited the set late last year. "Lots of shows are built around the format of EastEnders and Coronation Street. Those are brilliant and popular. However, we didn't want to do that again: we wanted to try something unique."
"You can't get away from the fact that losing Emmerdale and Coronation Street obviously had an impact on the number of viewers watching the channel," says Eddie O'Mahoney, trading director at Core Media, one of Ireland's largest media buyers. "But Red Rock is performing quite well - the numbers are holding up. It's never going to be another Coronation Street. But I think it's a very strong production. They also did a good job with the Rugby World Cup. There were positive feelings towards TV3 from that."
An emphasis on home-produced content will stand to the station in the long-term, says O'Mahoney. While bought-in programming such as Homeland is available from a multitude of alternative sources, TV3 can better control access to, and thus profit from, a property such as Red Rock.
"With them deciding not to go ahead with Coronation Street and Emmerdale and spending $12 to $15m [to acquire the rights], that has… allowed them to do stuff like Red Rock," says O'Mahoney. "You can view Homeland in a lot of places. Whereas with Red Rock they are controlling where it is going. If you don't watch it live you may watch it on their Player afterwards.
Still, he cautions against writing off UTVIreland. While the challenger is widely regarded as having flopped, O'Mahoney believes that its audience share is respectable for a newcomer. "There's a perception it's a failure. That's far from the case. They've done very well for a launch station."
In other words, TV3 has achieved several significant victories - but the battle for the future of Irish television is far from over.