Thursday 19 April 2018

How the underdog of Irish TV fights the good fight

David McRedmond is too busy launching TV3's new schedule to worry about Lorraine's book, finds Daniel McConnell

SITTING in the spacious lounge of the Westbury Hotel in Dublin, David McRedmond -- the 48-year-old millionaire CEO of TV3 -- looks every inch a busy man, like he's hassled and under pressure.

Just 24 hours before he and his team were about to launch their most ambitious autumn schedule yet, McRedmond's focus has been dragged into a row with former presenter Lorraine Keane and her intention to publish a tell-all book of her time at the station.

This announcement was met with ire and fury from McRedmond's number two, Ben Frow, who blasted: "She'll never work in TV3 again."

And it is here that our interview began.

While Frow left no one in any doubt about his feelings over Keane's pending book, McRedmond was adopting a more pragmatic tone.

"Look, Ben and I understand that this is all media. This is simply a media kerfuffle. To be honest I don't take any of it very seriously. Lorraine Keane was a very good presenter, she left. She's doing what she is doing, good luck with that."

So will she ever work in TV3 again?

"Well, broadcasting is like politics, it's full of strong views held lightly, so there is always change in these things. I am pretty pragmatic about these things, as is Ben. Though you're right, Ben's words were strong. Ben is entitled to his views and he feels strongly about it. He is a grown-up, Lorraine is a grown-up. I am a pragmatist."

Whether Keane's book turns out to be as interesting as it has been billed is another thing, but it is an unwanted distraction for a man in the busiest week of his year.

It has been a tough few years for the broadcaster, which has seen a profit slump from €22m to just €2m, pay cuts, and two rounds of redundancies.

"It's been very tough, incredibly so," he says. "We were one of the first companies to implement pay cuts, which is a very painful thing to do, particularly for those on lower salaries. And those cuts averaged about 10 to 11 per cent, with cuts of almost 20 per cent for executives."

He adds: "Then we had two rounds of redundancies -- one round was voluntary and the other was compulsory. That's extremely tough. But I was amazed at how people knuckled down and just got on with it. As a result, the positive news was that we were cash- flow positive. We have an operating profit of €2m and it was important we have that."

It is a point McRedmond is keen to make in contrast to the €28m losses announced by main rival RTE a few days before, which benefits from advertising and more than €200m a year in licence fees. McRedmond's father Louis was a senior executive at the national broadcaster.

I asked him, do such losses at RTE drive him mad? He was scathing in his response.

"Yes, of course they do, it is wrong, totally wrong. And why I think it's wrong is that even with pay cuts within the organisation, which would have brought their cost base down, there was still a €17m deficit in television."

He highlighted that included in the huge losses was a €15m deficit in RTE 2.

"That to me is just utterly astonishing. They get the licence fee -- yet they run up a €15m deficit on what is a commercial station.

"Now, in a way it's their business, and if they want to run up a loss like that, and if the Government wants to talk to them about it, that would all be fine. But the problem is that they're in a commercial market, and it totally screws up that commercial market," he continued.

He goes on to accuse the broadcaster of pricing advertising too low, a move which has had a detrimental impact on the rest of the market.

"Our view, our strong view, is that they priced advertising too cheaply, and they are the price-setters in the market. RTE have such a dominant share, and we can only move marginally against that.

"The bottom line is that either they are spending €15m too much on their programming, and thus pricing us out of the market, or else they're under-pricing their advertising ,to the tune of €17m. And what's worse is that it's two years in a row."

His solution is bold.

"What I propose is that RTE 2 should only be funded by commercial revenues and let the licence fee pay for RTE1. Let RTE 2 compete properly. What this allows is a clear designation [between] its public-service remit and its commercial operations. They can't go on with this head-in-the-sand mindset."

Back to TV3. He was one of the key men involved in making the decision to reveal Finance Minister Brian Lenihan's cancer diagnosis on St Stephen's Day. Following the public backlash against the broadcast and now almost eight months on, I ask him is it an event he regrets?

"It's not an event I would particularly like to revisit, but you have asked the question. It was something unique and it was an exceptional report.

"I knew about it and was involved in the decision to go. I think the station is responsible and I am responsible for it. There were a lot of views expressed at the time. Some were reasonable, many were unreasonable. In truth the only one that mattered was that of Brian Lenihan himself. He was incredibly measured and dignified in what he said. He said it was a matter of public interest but he questioned the timing of it.

"We had a call to make. A lot of people who didn't have a call to make had opinions. I would be very clear, TV3 is quite conservative in terms of its news coverage. The BAI recognised our high professional standards. I respect the views of reasonable people who said it was wrong. We've been on record saying I have a huge respect for Brian Lenihan."

The day after we speak, TV3 launched its autumn schedule, with its highest proportion of homemade programmes to date. Big shows like The Apprentice are returning, but the only big new name to join the line-up is Today FM's Ray Foley.

Does TV3 suffer from not being able to match RTE in the salaries it pays to its top stars?

"It hasn't really been an issue. We tend to get the people we want for our shows. Matt Cooper has worked out really well on sport, we've of course Ray Foley on Take Me Out. We get the people and we develop them. But the only time anyone has been poached, so to speak, was Brendan O'Connor, following his success on The Apprentice: You're Fired!."

Does he have any hard feelings at all?

"No, not at all. We're all grown up, people cross channels and good luck to him."

Is there anyone on RTE he would like to see on TV3?

"I don't feel the need for it, I don't see the gap. So, no, not really. RTE stars like Tubridy or Pat Kenny tend to brand the station, and they become synonymous with the station, so I'm not sure how it would work."

While TV3 operates on a no-frills, highly cost-efficient basis, McRedmond believes that in the past TV3 was too quick to kill off programmes that struggled, including the ill-fated The Dunphy Show.

'Look, Ben and I understand that this is simply a media kerfuffle. Lorraine was a very good presenter, she left, she's doing what she's doing, good luck with that'

"I think when I came to TV3 I thought they were too fast in killing off shows -- The Dunphy Show was a great example of that. It was a good show which could have been worked on, to help it develop. It's very rare you get instant success, so things take time."

He admits that many of the station's US imports haven't worked out, going as far as to say its record is "dreadful".

"I'm not sure if all of our summer reality shows have worked great. Most of our home-produced shows have worked well. Before Glee, our track record in American acquisitions was dreadful."

But, ever the pragmatist, McRedmond says, just before he leaves: "We're prepared to make mistakes, and if we don't make them we're not trying hard enough."

Sunday Independent

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