Behind the Scenes: We meet key Irish and Ireland-based talent working behind the scenes in the TV, film, radio, theatre, and music industries. Here we chat to Linda Cullen, co-owner of Coco Television.
After more than three decades in the broadcasting industry, heading up one of Ireland’s leading production companies for the last two, Linda Cullen knows a thing or two about success. She’s the brainchild behind one of the most popular homegrown programmes on TV, Room to Improve. She also brought successful formats First Dates and Don’t Tell the Bride to Ireland and last year co-directed the award-winning The 34th documentary about the Marriage Equality organization.
Here she tells us about her career from starting out as a runner in the mid 80s to heading up her own company, surviving the recession and, in light of #MeToo and Time's Up, she shares her own experiences of harassment within in the industry in Ireland.
Linda left school at 16 and, and knowing she was a visual person but not keen to become an artist like other members of her family, she opted for an AnCO course [later known as FAS] in Media Studies.
“It was based in what used to be Carr Communications and they took me on as a runner,” she reveals. “I learned camera work and at night I’d go into the editing suites and make things and that’s how I started 35 years ago. I made lots and lots of corporate videos.”
Soon she became a camera woman and then started writing and directing. As she reached her late 20s the broadcasting industry started to blossom in Ireland and by 1997 she was co-owner of Coco Television with her business partner Stuart Switzer.
Mateo Sanai (First Dates), Hilary O’Donovan (Series Producer) and Linda Cullen (Exec Producer)
Room to Improve...
It's one of Coco Television's flagship programmes and Linda's proudest achievement. On paper it's a straight-forward home renovation show but it has become one of the most popular programmes on Irish TV in recent years, pulling an average consolidated audience of 721,000 each week this series. That's more than The Late Late Show or Dancing with the Stars.
Coco had previously produced House Hunters for RTE and when its run was coming to an end Linda worked with RTE's commissioning editor Grainne McAleer on a new design makeover concept. Dermot, meanwhile, had done a brief presenting stint on House Hunters so he came to mind for the role of presenter/architect.
"Dermot did his first little screen test down at my house where we put things in front of him and said, ‘what would you do with this?’ and ‘what would you do with that?’" reveals Linda, who adds that they had no idea he had also previously appeared on TV for an episode of Blind Date in the UK.
"We never knew that when he came to us," she says. "We were looking for an expert, an architect. We wanted someone who could express their passion and that’s not always easy. You don’t always find that."
Rory, Lorna, QS Lisa and Dermot on the final episode of Room to Improve
Linda, who is the show's executive producer, adds, "Let's face it, Dermot is very charming and very charismatic. There’s something about Mary and there’s something about Dermot! It’s really clear the moment you meet him. Dermot and I are very good friends now. We’ve known each other a really long time. There’s still something about Dermot. When Dermot walks into a room you enjoy being there. Even if you’re having a row!"
Regarding his clashes with clients on the show, she says he simply "sees things in a particular way and he really believes that and that's important in any expert, that they have a vision, particularly for television, and that they can express that."
The first Room to Improve makeover was a €30,000 extension. It was 2007 and people were flush with their SSIA savings. It originally aired during the week for half an hour but by series five it had become the hour-long show it is today.
"People are really loving it and it is fantastic for us," says Linda. "As programme makers that’s what we aim for – for people to find your programme entertaining, useful, informative, fun."
At that time of Room to Improve's arrival, RTE was spending almost €80m a year on independent productions. When the recession hit with full force in 2008, however, that spend dropped by half to around €40m. The impact on the independent sector was brutal.
"Like most independent production companies in Ireland we are very reliant on RTE," says Linda. "I had friends who were out of work and companies were closing down. The recession hit hard and the independent sector suffered greatly."
Following this the statutory spend by State broadcaster on independent productions was set at around €40m and has remained at that figure for the past decade. Competition within the sector is, therefore, fierce.
In 2016, for example, RTE received 884 pitches for TV programmes from indie companies and commissioned just 130.
"A lot of people are clamouring for that same amount of money," says Linda, who adds that while they do depend on RTE to a certain degree, they also produce content for other broadcasters including the BBC and their three-part 1916 series, narrated by Liam Neeson, was funded partly by the University of Notre Dame in the US.
While she says she "loves" a sense of competition with other production companies, Linda is not so enamoured by the instability of the business.
"It's largely a freelance business. With a company like ours, even though you're doing lots of productions, you still don't know at the start of the year what you're going to be doing that year. It is kind of crazy. It becomes a guessing game," she reveals.
"One of the things about Room to Improve and First Dates is that they're very successful and very likely to go again the following year but you don't know for certain until you're told, until you get that green light."
New programmes and untested formats need time to bed in, but they are not always given the opportunity. Coco recently produced a pilot, My Big Day: Home and Away in which two wedding planners went head to head to organise a wedding for clients at home versus abroad. It was an original RTE idea which was put out to tender and won by Coco.
"We made the pilot but we don’t know yet whether RTE want to proceed with doing a series of it or not," says Linda, "But programmes like that need time to develop. The presenters need to learn exactly what they're doing, what the characters are, what the story unfolding should be, should there be more to the story or less to the story?"
Competition for tenders adds to the instability of the job. Coco made CrimeCall for RTE for 11 years, for example, before losing it to a rival company.
"If something is put out for tender again after a period of a few years sometimes you lose it if you take the eye off the ball or someone is coming in hungrier," she says. "But if you don’t win you simply weren’t good enough!"
Hilary O’Donovan and Linda Cullen in the First Dates gallery
Linda has no problem giving credit where credit is due to other production companies or RTE for innovative and successful programming, admitting she's a fan of Operation Transformation, produced by Vision Independent Productions.
"I really admire how they worked that – it’s like an octopus with all these parts to it. It’s a very well worked format," she says, adding that she also enjoys Ireland's Fittest Family. In terms of personalities she's also a fan of Frances Brennan and flags Alison Spittle as "an amazing talent".
Given the instability of the industry, however, she says it's "not for the faint hearted".
"It's more for adrenalin junkies. But I wouldn’t say I’m an adrenalin junkie. I like a bit of certainty. We have a business here and people rely on us so to be able to say to people, ‘you’re fine for the next six months, you’ll definitely be doing that’ is important. When you have full time staff you want some certainty."
Women in the industry...
As a mum of seven year old twin girls, Linda is also acutely aware of how tough it can be for women, particularly women who want to have a family.
"I don’t think an industry exists in which it hasn’t been harder for women to succeed," she says. "There are a lot of women in our industry but not a lot of women who own their companies. There aren’t a lot of women who get the full benefit of that."
While there are many women working in the industry, few fulfil technical roles as directors or cinematographers although Linda says she knows many 'brilliant' female editors. However, fulfilling any role in such an unstable and largely freelance industry is difficult for women with children.
"If a woman is pregnant and has a child what does she do?" asks Linda. "One of the big issues is childbearing age and that time in your career is a really crucial time yet you also have a biological clock ticking in your face. It’s very hard to be able to construct family life while being a freelance person."
At the moment Linda sees women in the industry struggling, and taking a financial hit, in order to negotiate a home and work life.
"Women who have a baby will take three or four months off and then try to get back to work and figure out a way to do X amount of time and get some time off in the summer," she says. "They take a huge financial hit. It's certainly something that needs to be addressed."
Being a woman in the industry can be difficult for other reasons too. As highlighted by the recent #MeToo and Time's Up movements, harassment and abuse have been rife in the TV, film, music and other industries and fields for many years. It's something Linda, as a young lesbian woman, was also subjected to on many occasions, but one awful incident in particular stands out.
“In a particular studio, at a particular time, a male, the man who was the boss, and who had employed me – I was definitely his underling – when he found out from one of the other men in the room that I was seeing a woman, he said, in front of the whole room, that all I needed was 'a good porking'. It was appalling. It was an appalling moment.”
While it was the only incident with that particular man, who Linda does not want to name, but says he is “someone we would all know”, it was also the crudest comment she had ever received and the only one designed to humiliate her in front of other people.
“It was a man with power and he thought it was hilarious. Everyone laughed. There were three men in the room. I didn’t know what to do. I think I gave some sort of humorous retort. I honestly can’t remember. But I have thought about it many, many times over the years.”
Linda had several similar experiences, "Certainly as a young lesbian woman I can only speak of my own experience and I am sure loads of straight women have lots of similar experiences, but I had a number of inappropriate passes and that kind of thing.
"I was asked by other men had I had a really good man yet? They said it in polite terms and I didn't particularly mind at the time. I had had good men but I still went for the women!" she laughs. "I still fell down on that side of the fence and I’m happily there."
Linda describes herself as "very outspoken" and says she has always been out and believes "there is power in being out but not everyone can be out and back in the day not everyone could be out. But as it happens I was, and as a woman, a lesbian woman, did it hold me back? I don’t know. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. I’ll never know.
"Ireland was like that at the time and certain people, certain men, were like that. I feel I’ve had great success and that’s great but I don’t know if it held me back."
This is "the Ireland that we were, and sometimes still are, in" she says, which is why #MeToo is so important. There is power in sharing experiences.
The 34th - The Story of Marriage Equality...
While Linda no longer directs, she made an exception last year. She co-directed The 34th, a documentary about the Marriage Equality organisation in the decade leading up to the referendum. It was nominated for the 2018 George Morrison Feature Documentary award at the IFTAs and has hit the festival circuit internationally, screening in London to a standing ovation, and travelling as far as Sydney, Australia.
Feargha Ni Bhroin (Linda's civil partner), Grainne Healy, Katherine Zappone and Linda Cullen
"It was just a labour of love, something very dear to my heart. You don't often get to make things like that so it's fantastic when you do," says Linda fondly.
"It was a very proud moment for me as a lesbian woman with my kids and it's just a fantastic time that they can grow up in now. They're seven year old twins and they can grow up just talking about their mums in a very easy manner and their friends can talk about their mums."
Linda Cullen and her daughters during the marriage referendum
While she says it was one of her proudest moments personally, however, she adds that in terms of work she's most proud of Room to Improve, laughing, "I just love that show!".
Room to Improve has already been commissioned for a twelfth series to arrive next year and Coco is capitalizing on its success and Dermot's popularity with a new four part series of Dermot Bannon Homes. Last year they filmed in New York and LA and this year they're scoping out some new locations.
For Linda, it's as exciting as ever; "It’s a great job. I love it. I really do love it. It’s a fantastic way to make a living if you can put up with the instability of it. Making programmes is a brilliant way to make a living."