Raising its game: how TV3 is set to take on RTÉ after 6 Nations win and rebrand
Poor home programming has hampered it in the past but commercial channel TV3 has weathered several storms. Now it is set for a rebrand as it prepares to launch its coverage of the 6 Nations rugby tournament.
When Pat Kiely decided to move jobs and take up a senior sales position at a new television broadcaster that had yet to launch, he couldn't help but be struck by the suggested start day.
"It was April 1 and I heard all the April Fools' jokes," he says. "People thought I'd been mad to give up a good job and go to work for a complete unknown, especially in television."
But the ad man, who had cut his teeth in such agencies as Saatchi & Saatchi, was undeterred and he had got used to life in Ballymount, west Dublin, when TV3 finally went live some five months later on September 20, 1998.
Fast-forward 20 years, Kiely is not just still at TV3, but running it too. The CEO is in bullish mood right now and he has every reason to be optimistic for the immediate future. Next weekend, rugby lovers will have to move the dial - to borrow a strapline popularised by Newstalk - if they want to watch homegrown coverage of Ireland's 6 Nations opener away to France on Saturday. It's the first time the venerable tournament won't be shown on RTÉ, as TV3 outbid the national broadcaster for the rights for the next four years.
And in what Kiely is billing as "super Saturday", the rugby will be followed by Ireland's Got Talent, the local version of the global TV format, and will feature judges Louis Walsh and Denise van Outen.
It's an opportunity, Kiely says, to deliver hours of viewing to appeal to all members of the family and, he hopes, help TV3 consolidate its status as the second most watched station in the country.
And then, "towards the end of quarter two" - likely May or June - TV3 and its sister channels 3e and Be3 will be rebranded. Kiely is keeping his cards close to his chest for now, but it's thought that TV3 itself will be renamed Virgin Media Television, in deference to the station's owners. "There's still some work to be done," he says, "but the new branding will reflect the cross-platform ways that people watch programming today."
The rebranding will coincide with TV3's 20th anniversary and Kiely says it's testament to the strength of its workforce that it has survived when others - notably Sky Ireland and UTV Ireland - failed so quickly. "There's been real resilience here," he says, "and it's come through one of the most difficult periods ever for the media when it's come to advertising revenue."
He says "many people in the industry didn't give us a chance" when the station first aired, yet it attracted a steady viewership from the start even if the critics were busy throwing the brickbats.
TV3's birth was a tortuous one. The idea of a third station had been mooted throughout the 1980s, but it was Teilifís na Gaeilge - now TG4 - that was first out of the blocks in 1996. TV3 finally went on air on September 20, 1998.
As stipulated by its licence, it pledged to provide 15pc of homegrown programming on its schedule but in its early years, it was characterised by the larger number of cheap imports, often plumbing the depths of human existence.
For some, it has struggled to shake off a reputation as a purveyor of low-rent, sensationalised TV and those looking for a stick to beat it with need not look beyond Tallafornia - a version of Jersey Shore that ran between 2011 and 2013 and seemed to offend everyone, not just those from the Dublin suburb of Tallaght.
But two decades on from that introductory ad campaign built around the song 'Three is A Magic Number', what sort of identity does TV3 have, and has it come close to its stated aim in 1998 to "provide programming which is relevant to, and reflective of, the needs of a contemporary Irish community"?
Kate Shanahan, a former producer at RTÉ and now head of the journalism school at the Dublin Institute of Technology, believes it has largely succeeded in reflecting "an urban and younger Ireland" and has targeted areas that the national broadcaster has neglected, including breakfast programming and a showbiz show for the early evenings.
"Over the years the main criticism levelled at TV3 has been the lack of Irish programmes but it's improved considerably and their news service, in particular, is good. They've also upped their game when it comes to current affairs, but there's still a way to go especially when you think of something like [RTÉ's] Prime Time."
Shanahan says it has more diverse staffing than RTÉ, noting that it's more common to hear "strong Dublin accents" at the Ballymount station than at Montrose. "There's a sense, too, that TV3 is particularly good at developing new talent and a number of them, including Claire Byrne, have gone on to RTÉ."
She believes it has had to operate in an environment of straitened budgets and has been able to take risks that RTÉ might avoid. "Having worked in RTÉ, I know the pressures about getting it right and not to be seen to be wasting taxpayers' money."
Fergal Quinn, broadcast journalism lecturer at the University of Limerick, believes its "serious" output is strong considering the comparative lack of resources. "There are some excellent journalists working there and they're providing consistently strong news bulletins. And the current affairs is good, too. It's important not to underestimate that and I think some people that criticise TV3 don't really acknowledge that.
"There was also a small but loyal audience for Vincent Browne's show - particularly in its early years - and while it was obvious that there wasn't much money that went into those sort of programmes, it didn't really need it. I mean those 'town hall' programmes that Browne did around the time of the last general election were really rough-looking, from a television point of view, but it was fantastic public service television."
After Browne's departure that late-night slot has been co-hosted by Ivan Yates and Matt Cooper and it's set to be extended to four nights a week from February 5.
Quinn believes the twin attack of both the 6 Nations and Ireland's Got Talent can help grow their audience. "Particularly in the rugby," he says. "There's a cohort of people who just don't want TV3 for one reason or another but will find themselves going to it for the 6 Nations. They did a good job with the Rugby World Cup a few years ago so I think they'll be determined to show the very best of what they can do."
For Kate Shanahan, TV3's megabucks owner Liberty Global, which owns Virgin, should help ensure that it has greater funds at its disposal than before, especially when it comes to making drama - a notorious drain on resources.
For most of its lifespan, TV3 has barely touched drama but it won plaudits for its soap, Red Rock, which it managed to sell to both the BBC and Amazon Prime. "It's really well made and I think it's been highly praised by the critics," she says. But Red Rock faces an uncertain future: production stopped early last summer and there's no word on it resuming. The current run of 13 new episodes were all shot last year.
"One thing they need to address is pay," Shanahan says. "They run the risk of losing some of their talent, especially the up-and-coming ones who reach 30 or thereabouts and want to buy a house. The best of them will find work elsewhere."
If RTÉ had to contend with allegations about a gender pay gap last year, TV3 have not been able to avoid controversy either. Sinéad Desmond, the Ireland AM breakfast host, quit due to the discrepancy in wages earned by co-hosts Mark Cagney and Alan Hughes. And there were complaints that other presenters weren't earning 'market rates'. "I loved my time at TV3," says a former staffer, "but unless you're one of the big stars, you won't get rich out there. You learn a lot quickly, though, and there's a real buzz of activity.
"I remember someone coming in some years ago from RTÉ and they found it hard to adjust to the relentless pace. But in recent times, it's been a stressful place to work because there's been so much uncertainty with new owners and the fall out from UTV Ireland [now, effectively TV3's third channel, Be3]. The rebranding that's planned will only add to that feeling of insecurity, but then nobody in media can be comfortable any more."
While some question the wisdom of renaming the station Virgin Media Television, Michael Cullen, editor of Marketing.ie magazine, believes it's a ploy that could pay dividends. "It makes sense in the light of its owners and the different strands of media it's involved in," he says, "and whatever about TV3, its other stations, 3e and Be3, need to be rebranded because a lot of people - myself included - are confused about what their identities are.
"There was a rebranding very recently, but I don't think it worked. This is a chance for the station to demonstrate that it has three strong channels and to streamline its entire identity." There was controversy during that rebranding exercise when Pat Kiely suggested that TV3 was for "grown ups" while Be3 would be female-centric and feature soaps and lifestyle programming.
Despite such faux-pas, Cullen believes TV3's brand has been much stronger in the past five years than at any point in its previous existence. "Even people who liked it might have called it tacky up to that point," he says. "It wasn't just the nature of some of the programmings, but also the fact that the low budgets were often all too apparent. We live in a country where some of the best TV in the world is beamed into our living rooms every day and TV3 was seen to suffer in comparison, so when they tried something like reality TV, it looked pretty weak.
"But they've shown that they are really good at certain things, especially sport. Their Champions League coverage has been good, especially thanks to pundits like Graeme Souness and Kevin Kilbane, and they did a really great job with the Rugby World Cup. There's no doubt that RTÉ will sorely miss the 6 Nations and it will have been hard for them to accept that their main domestic rivals has one of the jewels in the sports crown."
Pat Kiely, meanwhile, is hopeful that these blue ribband matches will push TV3 into the top 20 list of the most-watched programmes per annum following its absence in 2017. "But sometimes those lists get overplayed," he says, "and it only tells a small part of the whole picture. We get the same number of viewers as RTÉ every month, but what we need to do is get those people to stay with us for longer."
The 6 Nations will surely help his cause and the ambitious CEO says there's no reason to assume that TV3 won't wrest other big-time sports events from RTÉ's grasp, including a future football World Cup. "Never say never in this business," he quips. "You just don't know what the future has in store."
Who's who on the TV3 6 Nations panel
The straight-talker from Cork has serious rugby pedigree: he's the Six Nations' record points scorer and was capped 128 times. After a coaching stint at Paris's Racing 92, he is now assistant head coach at Kiwi side Crusaders.
A Grand Slam winner with Ireland and twice winner with Leinster of the Heineken Cup, the Meath man has jumped ship from RTÉ to TV3. A seasoned broadcaster, he's also a regular on Sky Sports.
The former Munster and Ireland stalwart was among the first of a new generation of Irish sports stars to talk candidly about their mental health. He's done plenty of pundit work and is now a Newstalk Breakfast presenter.
The Australian coached Leinster and Scotland and was part of TV3's team for the Rugby World Cup in 2015, the first time the tournament had not been broadcast by RTÉ.
An Ireland international, the Dubliner captained the Leinster side that bagged back-to-back Heineken Cup triumphs. He was part of TV3's Rugby World Cup 2015 panel.
The Kildare broadcaster is no stranger to TV3 having presented Euro 2016 games and the playful rugby show, The Sin Bin, during Rugby World Cup 2015. He's perhaps best known as presenter of Newstalk's award-winning Off the Ball.
An experienced commentator in a number of different sports, his CV includes Champions Cup rugby for Newstalk and Sky Sports as well as Champions League football for TV3.
One of TV3's longest serving sports broadcasters, the Kerry native was a touchline reporter at the 2007 and 2015 Rugby World Cups and is a columnist with the Irish Independent.