independent

Friday 25 April 2014

We are fully committed to providing a public service -- without public funding

I just read your piece in this morning's Irish Independent and, while your view is representative of one perspective, there is another which I hope you will be interested to hear.

We like to think that the addition of Setanta to the sporting landscape in Ireland has been a positive thing all round and that there have been no losers as a consequence of our arrival into the Irish broadcast landscape. Setanta's arrival has benefited soccer, rugby, racing and GAA as well as many other sports federations in Ireland and abroad, not to mention the sports and television industry in Ireland and the viewers.

Before Setanta, Chelsea, Arsenal, Celtic and sometimes Liverpool fans had to wait for RTE to finish their broadcast of Manchester United's Champions League game before they could see their team's fixture delayed on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. With Setanta, the viewer simply chooses which fixture he would like to see.

Before Setanta, the whole Rugby World Cup was never shown. RTE only broadcast selected games. In 2007, rugby fans were able to watch every one of 48 live games on Setanta while terrestrial viewers got to see the big 10 matches.

Before Setanta, the Celtic League was a marginal rugby event with poor attendances and relatively low level broadcast interest. Now rugby fans can enjoy nearly 70 Magners League games per season.

Before Setanta, there was no meaningful contact between sports federations on either side of the border. Now Linfield fans look forward to their trips to Dublin and elsewhere to compete in the Setanta Sports Cup and Drogheda supporters travel to Belfast in anticipation of happy sporting day out.

Before Setanta, domestic football had five television matches broadcast per season. Now Setanta host-broadcasts over 30 of the 45 domestic matches covered across all channels. Interestingly, RTE's public service remit does not extend to showing all Irish teams in European competitions.

Before Setanta, there were almost no floodlit Allianz League fixtures. TG4's coverage of the Club Championships and League on Sundays increased significantly in volume since Setanta's arrival but, for some reason, some quarters felt that this was a step backward.

Before Setanta, RTE completely controlled televised sport in Ireland. This was not necessarily of RTE's choosing at the time but other broadcasters simply had not yet shown any appetite. If RTE didn't have the money / schedule space / interest in an event, then the event was not shown. Now all the federations can expect a reasonable return rather than the proportion of the budget that RTE decides to assign.

Why should one broadcaster have that control and responsibility? In my previous role in RTE, I sometimes wished another broadcaster would come and share this responsibility. Now we have this wish for the good old days before Setanta.

Before Setanta, the terrestrials were backing away from sport because it did not suit the free-to-air television schedules and the advertising departments were telling the schedulers that the advertising money simply wasn't there. Now the terrestrials have been forced to have another look at the measuring systems and they have discovered that the money is there.

Before Setanta arrived, the terrestrial stations were unchallenged and they suited themselves rather than the public. TV3's previous regime never covered any sport that they had to produce themselves and their spectacular success in GAA this time brings them into an entirely new and very exciting space.

They will produce their own coverage of Gaelic football and hurling matches at a very high level. Excellent as RTE GAA coverage may sometimes have been, isn't it wonderful to think that we're going to get at least one new Championship perspective -- a new version of coverage, presentation, analysis, discussion and interviewing. Isn't it time that more opinions were given an airing than those espoused by RTE?

Not everyone agrees with Joe Brolly's view of football or with Cyril Farrell's perspective on hurling. Although both are very good broadcasters neither has a monopoly on wisdom. Indeed, Joe's subjective view of the so-called free-to-air broadcasters' right to cover Gaelic Games (an RTE employee) flies in the face of the rapidly decreasing level of interest shown by the free-to-air broadcasters in the North over the last few seasons.

His attitude seems to suggest that no broadcaster at all is better than Setanta and that everyone has an entitlement to see every single game for free. But it's not free if you walk up to the gates of Semple Stadium or of Croke Park. The money collected at the gate and from the TV companies is put back into the game.

And not everyone agrees that RTE's public service remit is always uppermost in the minds of their staff. RTE have become every bit as commercial as any other broadcaster and it is not hard to argue that RTE's obsession with ratings (revenue) dictates much more of their broadcast policy than does the greater good of the public.

Nor is it much of an exaggeration to say that RTE only cover sports events that pay their way. Believe it or not, this is less true of Setanta who make a net investment into the coverage of all manner of minority sports from schools rugby and GAA to the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony. This is not a gripe, merely a statement of the fact that Setanta compares very favourably in this regard with any broadcaster, including those in receipt of significant public funds for this reason.

Perhaps you would be more surprised to learn that, without Setanta, no Irish broadcaster would have covered last year's British Open (won by Padraig Harrington) and next year's US Masters.

We also have a proposal before the GAA which we hope will be regarded favourably. For obvious reasons I cannot disclose the details of our submission but I can say that it does not contain any pay-per-view provision. If we are successful then all Setanta matches will be broadcast on our basic channel, Setanta Ireland, a channel that is now available in over half of the total number of Irish homes on cable and satellite and in a further 250,000 broadband homes. Our pay channels are not part of our proposal.

Whether or not we succeed in acquiring GAA events over the next term will be determined by the strategists in Croke Park whose leadership has brought them to a position of such relative strength -- having all the Irish broadcasters bidding for games over the next three seasons. Not all Irish federations enjoy such privilege but those that do are entitled to use the position to their maximum effect.

Nicky Brennan has been quoted as saying "It's not all about the money". We agree.



Niall Cogley

CEO Setanta Ireland

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