Wednesday 22 November 2017

Battle stations

It has lost its top soaps and GAA. Soon UTV will be in town threatening to eat its lunch. Can TV3 keep its viewers in a tough marketplace?

Money spinner: Coronation Street attracted 667,000 viewers for one episode
Money spinner: Coronation Street attracted 667,000 viewers for one episode
Times are tough for TV3
UTV Ireland is a massive threat
Mentalist Keith Barry's show has been a huge hit
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Perhaps its greatest achievement was getting on air and staying there for one and a half decades with minimal help from the TV licence payer. Now TV3 is fighting a battle for its very survival as its faces the loss of some of its most popular programmes, including live GAA and Coronation Street.

The station is bullish in the face of these challenges, and is planning to make more of its own shows and sell them overseas.

It is confident that it has scored an unlikely international hit with Keith Barry's hypnotic mind-bending entertainment show Brain Hacker. In recent weeks, the programme, where the Waterford "mentalist" performs several stunts, including playing Russian roulette, has been sold to France, China and several other countries.

Few doubt that TV3 will be up against it when UTV opens its own station based in the Dublin Docklands next year,

The declared aim of the Ulster invaders is to knock TV3 off its perch as the second most popular channel in the country.

UTV promises to create 100 jobs, but it remains to be seen how many home-produced programmes it makes. TV insiders do not expect all that many Irish shows, because UTV already has access to popular programmes from across the Irish sea. They can intersperse these with local Irish advertising.

"These are worrying times for anybody working in television in Ireland," said one well-known broadcaster. "There is uncertainty, not just in TV3, but right across the industry.

"RTÉ, like other channels, has cut its costs heavily, but at least staff there know that the station will always be there in some shape or form. But in commercial television, where there is no licence fee to fall back on, the situation is a lot more volatile."

Another ad industry executive said: "TV3 has been generated a lot of goodwill with its willingness to make home-produced programmes. It has been cheap and cheerful, but it really needs some big hits – programmes that attract up to 1 million viewers."

UTV will take TV3's most popular programme, Coronation Street, as well as another soap, Emmerdale. This will create huge holes in the schedule. On the plus side for viewers they will be relieved of Jeremy Kyle.

For the moment, other hit shows such as Downton Abbey, X Factor and Champion's League Football are staying with TV3, but these are already in UTV's sights.

To add to TV3's challenges, its summer schedule will be hit by the loss of live GAA championship matches to Sky.

Close to half a million people watched Mayo beat Donegal in the All Ireland Senior Football Quarter Final last summer. That is a big audience for the Ballymount station.

"TV3 has been imaginative in using scarce resources, and it has increased its amount of home-produced programmes," says Colum Kenny, Professor of Communications at Dublin City University. "However, it would be naïve to suggest that the loss of the soaps and GAA, and the arrival of UTV are not heavy blows."

You only have to look at the top 20 most popular shows in the Irish ratings to see the difficulties faced by TV3 in competing effectively with the heavily subsidised state broadcaster.

Every single programme in the chart except one was shown on RTÉ. The list was headed by the The Late Late Show and Love/Hate, with audiences of 1.5 million and 1.1 million respectively.

The only TV3 hit in the chart was an episode of Coronation Street with 667,000 viewers.

On any given week day, the most popular British soap and Emmerdale account for five half-hours of the evening and afternoon line-up. Viewers of these popular programmes will now have to be replaced.

One broadcaster said: "When you have a hugely popular programme like Coronation Street, you can build your schedule around it.

"If someone is watching the soap or Emmerdale, they might stay with the station for the next programme as well."

When it loses the two big soaps, TV3 is expected to free up between €10m and €15m which it was paying in fees to ITV. How exactly TV3 spends that money will determine how successful the station is in the coming years.

Pat Kiely, TV3's Commercial Director, told Weekend Review: "We now have significant opportunities to make more Irish programmes and we are already putting that into practice. We are on the verge of investing more in local productions than ever.

"TV3's licence requires us to have 25pc home-produced programmes. This year it will be 40pc and next year 50pc."

One of the station's ultimate aims is to develop its own shows and formats, and sell them on to foreign stations.

One of its high-profile programmes, Brain Hacker, featuring the mind control and hypnosis tricks of Keith Barry, has already proved popular with foreign buyers. It has been sold to New Zealand, Poland, Sweden, China and France.

Pat Kiely of TV3 says: "Keith Barry travels extremely well. We are expecting to sell Brain Hacker to 70 countries, and in some places it will be dubbed."

A French station is also piloting its own version of the TV3 quiz show The Lie. The quiz show is based around the idea of spotting lies. A Scottish version of the show is already filmed at the TV3 studio in Ballymount.

TV3 is also pinning much of its hopes on its new soap, which is due to air next year, in time for the departure of Coronation Street.

"I was very critical of the station in its early years, because of its reliance on bought-in programmes, but recently it has been more adventurous," says Prof Colum Kenny. "It will be an extremely tough time for them, but I am sure they will be imaginative."

TV3 is regarded in the industry as a much leaner and more nimble operation than RTÉ.

"They tend to work harder there," said one broadcaster. "It is a good place to work for a young person getting into the industry, because they will give you opportunities and there is a lot of multi-tasking.

"It has done well with couch TV at breakfast and during the mid-morning, because it is relatively cheap to make. Of course, it would like a big drama hit, but for every Love/Hate on RTÉ, there have been eight flops."



The Highs

Coronation Street - The big audience puller that will move channels next year.

TV AM - Sofa so good for the breakfast show that has been on air since 1999.

Keith Barry's Brain Hacker - The show featuring magician's mind-bending tricks has been sold to several foreign TV. channels

Tonight with Vincent Browne - It now seems repetitive and insular, but it shook up the political scene in its early years.


The Lows

The Dunphy Show - Billed as a rival to the Late Late Show, Eamon Dunphy's 2003 chat show floundered. As the pundit would put it – "not a great show".

Deception - Viewers didn't take to the station's foray into drama with this series set on a ghost estate.

Dublin Wives - Followed well-to-do ladies "living the dream", but for viewers it was a nightmare.

Jeremy Kyle - You may need counselling after watching this ITV import featuring family feuds.

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