Thursday 24 May 2018

RTE digital chief: 'We will have more global operators here... it's not going to stop at Netflix'

As RTE's chief digital officer, Muirne Laffan is steering the taxpayer-funded public service broadcaster through uncharted waters. She spoke to our business reporter about RTE's digital strategy in the age of Netflix

Muirne Laffan, who sits on the RTE executive board, has been tipped to take the top job of Director General. Photo: Mark Condren
Muirne Laffan, who sits on the RTE executive board, has been tipped to take the top job of Director General. Photo: Mark Condren
Video streams included the Six Nations and Conor McGregor's 'The Notorious'.
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

Muirne Laffan is almost finished Netflix's smash hit true crime documentary 'Making A Murderer'. It's brilliant, she says, but not necessarily ground-breaking.

"Shows like this are nothing new really," she says. "What Netflix is doing is using a new type of media to open up a traditional genre to a new audience."

It was the same with 'Serial', NPR's wildly popular 2015 podcast which followed another questionable murder case, she says.

While once they were colleagues, Netflix and NPR are now RTE's competitors. I listen to 'Morning Ireland' and watch 'Six One' most days, but like many Irish people spend just as much time listening to US podcasts and streaming Netflix.

Laffan, RTE's new chief digital officer, believes this slow creep of international broadcasters into the Irish psyche makes her organisation more relevant thank ever.

"We have a generation already in a global marketplace. Sitting here talking about 'Making A Murderer'... We will have more global operators in this market. It's not going to stop at Netflix.

"One of the key things that we're seeing with Ireland becoming a global market, with more big, very well-funded media companies coming to Ireland, predominantly American and British... I think the role of Irish public service media will become even more important. We have a distinct role and we are working very hard to fulfil that."

Laffan has nearly three decades of experience in the changing dynamics of media consumption. After studying marketing at DIT she began her career in advertising, spending two years in London and 11 in New York.

She specialised in interactive advertising, a precursor to digital, working with big global clients like Johnson and Johnson, and General Motors.

"It was forward-looking work; we had advance insight into where digital was going, including the significance of mobile devices."

Laffan came back to Ireland in 2001 and joined RTE as general manager of its commercial enterprise business, responsible for revenue diversification. She climbed to managing director of RTE digital before being appointed to the chief digital officer job in December. Today she also sits on RTE's executive board.

She is reported to be in the running for the director general job, the most senior role at the broadcaster, to replace outgoing DG Noel Curran.

RTE's online offering is staffed by about 110 people, mostly with multimedia backgrounds. They play a huge role in delivering RTE content, Laffan says. Half of all Irish adults connect with the State-funded broadcaster via its digital services every week, its research suggests. That encompasses its website, player, apps and a partnership with the GAA.

Traffic patterns for its flagship product,, reveal things about the public. The day of the Marriage Equality Referendum count was its busiest ever. Its second busiest day of the year was Sunday, October 11, when news broke of the killing of Garda Tony Golden in Co Louth. Budget Day was third.

This year the site turns 20 years old. A rebuild is being planned, which should begin in earnest by the spring. "Personalisation will be a key element, the whole area of content discovery. We have lots of stuff, really good distinct Irish content online. What we need to do now is make it as easy as possible for users to find that content.

"If we know, for example, that you are interested in the arts and food, we can start making you aware of what we have in those subjects. As a public service media organisation we exist in the public interest, we must ensure that our audiences can find what they are looking for."

Geo-location services will also be introduced as part of the revamp. Four-fifths of all traffic to comes via mobile devices but the site is not as mobile-responsive as it could be, she adds. Its mobile version does not offer everything the desktop version provides and has presentation issues. She cites its archive site, a younger product, as more mobile-ready. It was built with mobile in mind but works for any screen size.

Online video platform the RTE Player has been "phenomenally popular", Laffan says. It served around 40m streams in 2015.

February and March were its busiest month, driven by the RBS Six Nations, Cheltenham Festival, the 'Who killed Lucy Beale' special on 'EastEnders' and Conor McGregor's 'The Notorious'. While it has evolved significantly from its earliest iteration, it is still basically a catchup service.

It makes RTE broadcasts available online for up to 30 days after they air on television - when it launched, the limit was 21 days - and then those shows disappear. This divides it from services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, which offer a permanently available bank of shows.

But Netflix-style additions are happening, Laffan says. This includes the addition of Doc Hub, 70 series of documentaries pulled from RTE 1, RTE 2 and the archives, which will sit permanently on the player alongside catchup shows. What is being created, Laffan says, is a "combination of live, full-series and catchup services".

"We have also been experimenting with originals." The group has just launched Storyland, a competition for new short-form series which will air first on the Player. Why not just put all their shows up on a permanent basis? "Partly because it is not all digitised," she says.

"We are going through a process to look for funding to digitise. We have been lucky enough to have been awarded funding by the BAI Sound and Vision Fund, three awards for news. So by the end of next year we will hopefully have all news shows back to the '60s available on our website.

"That's our aspiration. We're now into the physical work of digitising it. The reality is that it takes an hour to digitise an hour of taped footage. It's a very time-consuming, laborious process, although it's something that is absolutely worth doing. We are very grateful to the BAI for funding this. We think we will be the only country in the world to have it."

RTE has 230,000 hours of non-digital content in its archive in total.

"The first step to getting stuff online is sorting out the rights issues. We are working to develop a digital rights management system across everything that we do. In the past you were just looking for the right to broadcast or rebroadcast but obviously that has changed.

"In the past few years programmes that have been commissioned have had all rights cleared, or have certainly considered that we will want to have it online, and maybe for a long period after it was originally aired.

She cites rolling-news services RTE News Now as an example of a product built for digital. "Back in the early days of building content for mobile, we created this rolling news product for the Three network. Three pulled out but we continued to develop it ourselves and it became News Now.

"We were running it online, we were running it on mobile, then built an app, then we ran it as a live channel on Player, then we got a license for it and it went out on Saorview, UPC and more recently Sky.

"It's a great case study of something that started as a digital pilot and has moved across lots of different platforms. It's a digital native that made its way all the way up to broadcast." RTE's news division took over the running of News Now from digital four years ago.

The group's newest digital products are its paid-for international services. The first of these, GAAGO, launched in June 2014.

It is a joint venture between the RTE and the GAA which allows the broadcaster to sell matches around the world to individual subscribers on their personal devices. Before that they were only sold into pubs and clubs. Since its launch in June 2014, GAAGO has been streamed in over 180 countries and saw 55pc growth in international users in 2015.

"It has been fascinating" says Laffan. "It has allowed us to give something to the Irish diaspora that they were crying out for. Both ourselves and GAA are very, very happy with it.

"We were constantly asked - why can't we watch matches on personal devices? And the answer was that sports rights are very expensive propositions, you can't just make matches available for free."

The service has done well, she adds. It broke even in its first year and made a slight profit in year two. "It's something we are investing in and building. Distribution is key. This year we will go onto Roku boxes in the States which will bring us into 10m homes. It really puts us front and centre in the US, you will see it promoted on your Roku box."

RTE centralised all its various distribution functions about six months ago.

"We are driving it from here [digital] with a group that works across the organisation. That means that all arrangements and distribution deals are done through one group, as opposed to going to TV for one thing and radio for another and Player etc.

"The reason was, this is about building a really smart, strategic roadmap for the future. It's all about ensuring our services get on the right devices, and that we are leveraging value from that."

GAAGO was followed by Player International, a paid-for version of the RTE Player available outside of Ireland.

"We did previously have the Player available around the world for free, but it was a limited version because we had no financing mechanism that could clear rights. So basically we put out what we could, that didn't cost too much.

"What we have created now is a freemium version, which means you get some stuff for free - about 100 hours per month, including 'The Late Late Show' and 'Fair City'. Then if you want more, box sets, etc, you go behind a paywall where you will get another 400 hours a month."

RTE is thinking globally from now on, Laffan says. On average 25pc of RTÉ.ie traffic is from international audiences and 30pc of traffic to its radio apps was from international listeners in 2015. "Everyone has a relative who has gone to live overseas. They are our audience too."

Muirne Laffan will be speaking at the digital marketing conference DMX Dublin on March 9

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