How the Rugby World Cup is changing the game for TV3
The station began the year under threat from rival UTV Ireland, but is finishing it on a high - and it's all thanks to the biggest sporting event of 2015. Our reporter visits the commerical station on match-day to see how Ireland's rugby team has helped changed its fortunes
TV3's studio sets were once the butt of jokes, but the gleaming pink and blue edifice built for their Rugby World Cup coverage is about as far as can be from the flimsy designs of the past. It's not the only thing that has changed about the commercial station.
Visit the HD studio next door to TV3's existing HQ in the otherwise nondescript industrial estate in Ballymount, west Dublin, and you're in an environment well equipped to handle the rigours of contemporary broadcasting. The match-day studio takes pride of place in the heart of the building and next to it is the set designed for The Sin Bin, the audience-participation rugby variety show that is broadcast on Thursdays and hosted by Newstalk's Joe Molloy and comedian Andrew Maxwell.
On Sunday at 1pm, The Sin Bin set is shrouded in darkness and all the lights are trained on the main studio as presenter Tommy Martin and analyst Fiona Steed sit at their desk and watch the second half of the Argentina-Namibia match. Steed - one of the most capped internationals in the history of Irish women's rugby - is making her debut on TV3 and is attentively studying the game. Martin - well known as a host of the channel's Champions League football coverage - appears more relaxed. A pair of production staff sit nearby at computers; they are using the BBC-created Piero sports graphics software to select the match footage and visuals that Steed will use in her analysis at the end of the game.
A couple of doors down the hallway, it's all go in the station's production suite. A wall of television screens assails the senses of those who enter the darkened room for the first time, and rows of busy staff sit at computers, working through the visuals and sound and a myriad other things that TV viewers aren't even aware of, yet are essential in helping to deliver quality sports broadcasting.
All, except one, are female. These production staff have been on site since 10am and won't be leaving the station until midnight. It's the same long shift every Saturday and Sunday for the seven-week duration of the World Cup and nobody seems to mind.
In another part of the building, there's an editorial meeting between host Matt Cooper, executive producer Tony Whelan and analysts Matt Williams, the former Leinster and Scotland coach, and Keith Wood, arguably Ireland's most celebrated rugby international of the 1990s and now a seasoned broadcaster in his own right. Cooper, Williams and Wood have eschewed the suits they wear on air and look for all the world like a trio of mates on a stag weekend. If they feel pressure ahead of the Ireland-France game, and the huge audience expected, they're not showing it.
Williams, Wood and another analyst, the injured Irish international Shane Jennings, go into make-up while Cooper ponders what he feels has been a very successful tournament for TV3 to date. "We've been really happy with the public reaction," he says, "I've being stopped by strangers on the street to say they like what we're doing. What's coming across is that we all love our rugby - it's no chore. And we've been lucky that there have been tremendous games - like Australia-Wales and Scotland-Samoa, which had such great running rugby."
This is the first time in Rugby World Cup history that all 48 matches have been screened free-to-view in the Irish market. RTÉ had the rights for just 13 games in the 2011 tournament, with Setanta showing the rest, while TV3 and Setanta divided the spoils in 2007.
"We have a sense of responsibility that we are servicing the public," Cooper says, "but we are a commercial station. We're not benefiting from licence fee revenue. When I say, 'We're back [after an ad break] in 30 seconds', we are back in 30 seconds. Sky charge you to watch their sports - and they have long commercial breaks too."
TV3 are expecting to make €3m directly in ad revenue on the World Cup, and potentially a further €2m from brands who aren't spending on the tournament directly, but have upped their spend with the station. One brand, Land Rover, is paying €450,000 to sponsor TV3's rugby coverage.
Although TV3 has not revealed how much was bid to win the rights - and wrest the tournament from the clutches of RTÉ - it is thought that the buoyant revenue will ensure that any losses aren't high. "Big sporting events like the Rugby World Cup are often loss-leaders for broadcasters," a TV3 insider says, "but they're prestige events that can enhance reputations, so the hit is worth it. But we don't think the losses will be that great."
For TV3 head of sport Kieran Holden, the World Cup has been of incalculable importance. "It's almost like a relaunch of the channel," he says. "There was a lot of doom and gloom spoken of TV3 at the beginning of this year, what with the launch of a new station [UTV Ireland] but we've had our biggest ever viewing figures in the past few weeks. And the schedule has changed an awful lot, too, what with The Seven O'Clock Show and so on.
"The different between us now and 2007 [when TV3 first showed games at a Rugby World Cup] is huge. We've got a lot more knowledgeable people on side, like Niall Cogley [who heads up their rugby coverage]. We learnt a lot from doing GAA for six years."
Cooper concurs: "The central thing is the game, and we put a frame around the game in terms of analysis and so on. And we don't forget that people aren't coming to see the frame, they want to see the game. That was the criteria we set for our GAA coverage over six years - we bought the viewer pundits who called it as they saw it and didn't hype it up or dumb it down. We didn't go for cheap publicity. And that's the philosophy we're bringing to rugby too.
"We wanted intelligent discussion and analysis, giving our pundits the time and the space to talk. Not to be controversial for the sake of it, but to show their knowledge, and to show their love and enjoyment of the game."
When pushed, Cooper says he is not having a go at RTÉ's sports coverage, which is sometimes criticised as being overly dependent on the outpourings of contentious pundits. "I'm not concerned about what other people are doing," he says, "only what we're doing."
Tony Whelan is contracted to TV3 for the duration of the tournament. He previously worked on big sporting events at RTÉ and Setanta and cut his teeth on the 1998 football World Cup. He is heartened that the figures for what Cooper calls "the frame" have held up strongly. "The success of any tournament for a broadcaster is to build an audience for the match, and then get them to stay. A huge number of people stayed with us after the [Ireland-Italy] match so that suggests we're doing something right."
The next day, on Monday lunchtime, the ratings come in and they make for very happy reading for everyone at TV3. While the Ireland-Italy game represented a record audience for the channel, the match against France smashes it. At its peak, 1.6 million people tune in at some point, while 1.15 million watch the game in its entirety. Even more remarkably, 72pc of the Irish adult population watch the exploits of Joe Schmidt's team on TV3, which illustrates the enormous interest the general public have in this Irish team.
To put the ratings into perspective, consider that RTÉ manage an average of 772,000 for the crucial Ireland-Poland football game in the Euro 2016 qualifiers afterwards on Sunday night, while last month's All-Ireland football final - traditionally one of the most watched broadcasts of the year - averaged 875,300. Neither come close to the momentous match in Cardiff, or indeed the game against Italy the previous week, which was watched by 956,600 on average. The only sporting occasion to come close to it in the past decade was Ireland's historic Six Nations game with England at Croke Park in 2007, but even its peak (1.2 million) and average (1.05 million) lag behind.
Put simply, the Rugby World Cup has changed the game for TV3 and when it comes to year-end, the top-10 list of most watched Irish programmes will see the commercial station leading the charge. It's rare that TV3 make the top 10 - it's had to rely on buy-ins like The X Factor for its top-rated shows. Indeed, its all-time ratings winner up to this year was the final of The X Factor in 2010.
No doubt station bosses in RTÉ will be hoping that the traditional most-watched programme in Ireland, The Late Late Toy Show, will do especially well this year. It averaged 1.55 million last year, which puts it well ahead of TV3's Ireland-France. But Ryan Tubridy's very best efforts may yet fall short. Tomorrow's match against Argentina could better last week's rating and were Ireland to win and book a first-ever place in a World Cup semi-final, who knows what audience the station could command?