Tuesday 20 March 2018

Touch, pause, engage ... how rugby is changing the face of Irish TV

The success of TV3 is rewriting the script in Irish broadcasting, and it's about time too, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

IT’S A FUNNY OLD GAME: Pictured at the TV3 autumn launch at the Aviva Stadium are Rugby World Cup (RWC) panellist Matt Cooper, presenter Sinead Kissane and RWC sports presenter Tommy Martin
IT’S A FUNNY OLD GAME: Pictured at the TV3 autumn launch at the Aviva Stadium are Rugby World Cup (RWC) panellist Matt Cooper, presenter Sinead Kissane and RWC sports presenter Tommy Martin
Ray D’Arcy with Donncha O’Callaghan on the first The Ray D’Arcy Show

Eilis O'Hanlon

The competition can survive, but it must not thrive. That has always been the received wisdom in RTE about its special place in Irish broadcasting.

Then again, the received wisdom also decreed, in the famous words of Gary Lineker, that football is a game in which 22 men chase a ball around a field for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans always win - and that was spectacularly turned on its head last week too.

It's balls of a different shape which are helping TV3 shake up the similarly stultifying consensus in broadcasting, by giving the station its highest ever audience, as Ireland beat Italy in the Rugby World Cup last Saturday. Viewing figures peaked at 1.18 million in the closing minutes of the game, which represents a 70pc share of the available audience, with nearly 1.4 million tuning in at some point during the transmission, even more than watched the All-Ireland Final on RTE in September.

The success of coverage of the Rugby World Cup is turning out to be a particular disaster for The Ray D'Arcy Show, which has plunged to a miserable 360,000 viewers just a second week into its run, despite the massive amounts of money being thrown at the new chat show by the national broadcaster in an effort to convince Irish viewers that they urgently need another lacklustre, anodyne, sleep- inducing chat show a mere 24 hours after watching another one exactly like it.

It has confounded sniffy critics too, who from the start sneered that TV3 had paid too much money for broadcasting rights to the tournament, after painfully losing out in the bid for GAA coverage to a massive joint deal from RTE and Sky Sports. The money from that failed bid went straight into the coffers for the rugby, and how the know-it-alls in RTE scoffed at their rivals for naively putting faith in an event which had never especially captured the public imagination before.

They forgot that this was a tournament at which Ireland had a better chance than usual of doing well, and which would, crucially, be played in our own time zone, meaning the main matches would be on air during prime time.

The mockery even continued after the tournament began, with rugby pundit George Hook having a go at TV3's commentary; but the audience is clearly more forgiving than the purists who reacted to TV3 getting its hands on their precious game with the sort of horror that would greet Mrs Brown and her Boys if she had the audacity to move into Buckingham Palace.

Pass the smelling salts, nurse, there is life outside RTE. Who knew?

It's not only sport either. Ivan Yates' round-up of the papers on TV3's Sunday AM is beating RTE's The Politics Show into the halfpenny place in the ratings too. The gap between the two stations closed to 5pc in the course of 2014, and some of the most successful programmes were home grown, not least The Christmas Toy Show which attracted half a million viewers.

It confirms what the wise always knew, which is that RTE doesn't have a dominance on Irish broadcasting because it has the magic formula for making the best television shows, but simply because it has been gifted a dominance within the market which has proved almost impossible to challenge until now.

"Anything you can do, we can do better" has always been RTE's attitude to uppity rivals, and they've got away with it thanks to huge amounts of public money being siphoned off in its direction. No matter how often the argument has been made that the license fee money should be more fairly distributed amongst Irish broadcasters, change has been consistently thwarted by successive governments too afraid or sentimental about tradition to make RTE stand on its own two feet.

If RTE used the vast sums of money at its disposal to invest in high volume of quality public service broadcasting which could otherwise not be produced, that would be fair enough. But it doesn't. Its schedule is more or less indistinguishable to that of less pampered competitors.

On radio too, Newstalk has disproved the myth that high-quality speech broadcasting can only be funded by the license fee, just as TV3 is now upsetting the ingrained idea that big national events, such as crucial sporting fixtures, can only be handled properly by the national broadcaster.

Those who still sneer at commercial television sound increasingly like bewhiskered colonels in the home counties who greeted the advent of ITV as if it heralded the end of civilisation as they knew it.

There were advertisements every 15 minutes for soap powder. What was the world coming to? There were programmes featuring people who didn't know the correct spoon to use for pudding. How had these mannerless oiks sneaked past security?

Their contemporary equivalents in Ireland tend to be much more right on and politically correct than the spluttering colonels of yesteryear, but they share the same kneejerk disdain at people who haven't been to Trinity or UCD. That's why TV3 was mocked by the metropolitan elites for showing so many foreign, mainly British, imports, such as Coronation Street (now gone to UTV Ireland), Downton Abbey, The X Factor, and I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!

It comfortingly confirms their snobbishness about television as a lesser art form, because of course people enjoying shows that you personally wouldn't deign to watch must not be tolerated - though if Irish people do want to watch British soap operas and British reality TV, and they clearly do, isn't it better that the advertising revenue raised from them doing so stays within Irish broadcasting and can be funnelled into making indigenous TV shows here?

Some of those will be spin-offs of those foreign imports too, such as The Great Irish Bake Off or the now sadly defunct Irish version of The Apprentice. But again, why not? There's no mystery or conspiracy about it. Certain shows spawn multitudes of copies simply because they work. University Challenge is no less entertaining because it's based on an American quiz show called College Bowl.

It's only cultural insecurity which makes some Irish bluestockings think there's something wrong with adopting popular formats from the UK then adapting them into home-grown versions. Did British viewers feel they were being culturally colonised because Big Brother was based on an original Dutch format that was sold around the world? Is anyone's national identity diminished by watching an Australian soap or American sitcom?

Irish Times-reading pseudo intellectuals may feel it is, but the only people who take them seriously are others like them, and there are too few of them to bother about.

Against them stand more than three million people who, to date, have watched the Rugby World Cup on TV3, and the quarter-finals haven't even started yet. If Ireland reach the final, the sound of cheering in Twickenham will only be matched by that of envious executives kicking themselves in Donnybrook.

Sunday Independent

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