Pat Stacey: History is against TV3 as it takes on challenge of creating fresh new soap
TV3 is to produce its own twice-weekly soap opera from 2015.
Faced with losing the rights to show Coronation Street and Emmerdale once UTV’s new Dublin-based channel comes on air, the broadcaster has decided that the best way to beat them is by joining them in the great battle for the hearts and remote controls of Irish viewers.
All you can say to the Ballymount outfit is good luck, we admire your pluck, because no TV channel faces a challenge more daunting than starting its own soap from scratch.
Unbelievable as it might seem, there was a time when EastEnders wasn’t the surefire ratings draw for the BBC it is now. When it was unveiled in 1982 in a blitz of advance publicity that went on for weeks, many commentators predicted it would fail to challenge the might of Coronation Street.
At the time, Emmerdale – or Emmerdale Farm as it was still known – had moved from afternoons to evenings just four years earlier and wasn’t attracting anything like the audience it does today.
EastEnders was considered a huge gamble by the BBC, which had never had an in-house soap. It was one that paid off spectacularly well. The same can’t be said of the Corporation’s ambitious Eldorado, launched in 1996 and intended to be a kind of EastEnders in Spain, the idea being to capture some of the sun-kissed glamour of the Australian soaps.
It was a massively expensive project that involved purchasing a complex of Spanish villas and wiring them for sound and vision – a disastrous decision that resulted in echoes and other acoustic distortions that made chunks of dialogue inaudible.
It didn’t help that many members of the multinational cast were young, inexperienced, as wooden as doorframes and had difficulty delivering the English language dialogue, and that the characters were unconvincing and the storylines dull.
Then BBC controller Alan Yentob axed Eldorado after one year and 159 episodes – ironically, just as ratings were beginning to pick up. The BBC, its fingers burnt by the Spanish sun, never attempted another soap.
Granada Television, which originally produced Coronation Street, did, however. It was called Albion Market. Set, hardly surprisingly, in a market in Salford, it didn’t even last as long as Eldorado (100 episodes, to be precise) and made even less of a splash when it sank – primarily because there were few people watching when it disappeared beneath the water.
Given this weight of history just waiting to crash down, you can appreciate the size of the risk TV3 is taking. But what kind of a soap will it be making? It can’t just produce a clone of Fair City – although it has already said it would be happy to poach some of that programme’s cast.
The challenge is to come up with something fresh.
According to TV3’s head of independent productions, Owen McArdle, who received 16 pitches from production companies, many of the ideas are for “precinct-style soaps based around the work of the gardai and the fire service”. Soaps set in hospitals and the technology industry are also high on the list.
To be honest, none of these sounds original. Cops were done in The Bill, which started out as a gritty drama before morphing into a soap. Firefighters would require a big special effects budget. Hospital soaps? There are plenty to choose from. As for the tech industry . . . really?
The trick, I suppose, is to find something that feels fresh and new. The problem with soaps is that while each one is different, they’re basically all the same: a few houses, a shop, a pub, a café, maybe a garage.
TV3’s biggest challenge won’t be producing a soap, but producing one that stands out from the pack. Anyone for a revival of The Riordans?