Saturday 20 January 2018

'What I want for TV3 is for it not to be RTE'

TV3's Director of Programming Ben Frow talks to Liam Collins as the station launches its autumn schedule

'IWON'T wear a shirt any more, life is too short to spend time ironing," says Ben Frow, director of programming at TV3 as he bounces into The Harbour Master restaurant in Dublin's IFSC for lunch.

Frow is a small Englishman, bubbling with enthusiasm for TV and getting one up on the competition -- RTE.

"I don't want the licence fee," he insists, which might send a shudder down the spine of some of the 'suits' at the independent commercial station which is based in an industrial estate in Ballymount, west Dublin -- a place which contrasts sharply with the large leafy complex in Montrose where the highly paid stars of the national broadcasting service do their stuff.

But what he does want is some sort of separation between the licence fee of €120m and the advertising stream which RTE also gets. Most broadcasters in Europe are entitled to one or the other, but RTE manages to get both.

Frow's solution would see one RTE station depending on the licence fee and the other on advertising revenue, but he's also smart enough to know that no politician since Ray Burke has been prepared to tackle that thorny issue. And look at what happened to Burke.

Frow's wearing a V-neck white T-shirt under a denim jacket and has decided to lighten up and look at the bright side of life since reaching the milestone of 50 earlier this year.

I met him ahead of the station's launch of its autumn schedule last Thursday, and he has decided that he's going to be positive and not catty about the opposition.

It's a good intention, but only lasts about two minutes when I ask him about the annual RTE press release listing the 50 programmes with the highest audience in the last 12 months -- only two were broadcast on TV3, Coronation Street and the phenomenally successful Come Dine With Me.

"It doesn't make me depressed. RTE does this every year, that's the depressing thing. TV3 is growing its audience and we've increased steadily for three years in a row, on a budget of €20m.

"RTE is giving us the same old shows, and frankly I'm a little bit fed up with it. You can put anything on RTE at certain times and you get a huge audience -- but TV3 has to fight for its audience and it is growing in quality and range. We have a young mentality."

In his previous existence with Britain's Channel 4 and Channel 5 he was responsible for Jamie's Kitchen, How Clean Is Your House and Nigella Lawson's successful cookery shows.

What he is trying to do with TV3 is to be more nimble than its rival in Montrose.

Both stations are currently doing major programmes on the demise of Fianna Fail, but Frow is confident he'll get his Ursula Halligan presentation on screen first.

"The Late Late Show owns middle Ireland, but Vincent Browne owns intellectual Ireland, he owns opinion-forming Ireland. He brought his own audience and we own that slot -- it's provocative and Vincent is more than just a presenter, he's a great entertainer," he says, adding, "What I want for TV3 is not to be RTE."

"It's all about competition, you're always thinking are we missing a trick, are they ahead of the curve, are they doing something that we should be doing, you know, so you're always aware of the competition and it's quite a good way of just keeping yourself in check, a measure of where you're going and are you doing the right thing. I think it's a very, very good day for TV3 programming and literally already we've started talking about what we're going to do for next year. I need to have a clear idea of who we are, where we're going, what we want to be, can we show that we've evolved year-on-year, how are we going to demonstrate we've evolved year-on-year."

He believes that TV3 is far better at spotting new talent -- and using it. And he's getting used to them moving over to RTE, like his protege Grainne Seoige.

"I don't bear grudges," he says of Grainne, although he admits he did make what he now regards as some injudicious remarks after she left and was quite nervous about meeting her at the Conference Centre for the Queen's visit. But they got on famously and went to the bar and had a few drinks and a chat after the formal part of the event.

"Grainne is great and I'm delighted for her."

He says that he's come to realise that "times are too hard to be knocking people" and that in a small country like Ireland "we have to look after our own" -- but then he adds, "I can still put in the barb when I need to."

TV3 did 130 hours of home-produced programming last year and they have 230 new hours this year.

But Frow sees his job as doing "the right kind of Irish" and that means varying programmes like The Tenements, a social history of the Dublin slums, and at the other end of the scale plans Give Adele A Bell, featuring the inimitable Twink solving people's problems.

"It's all about balance," he says. "Someone asked, 'How can you do educational porn on the one hand and really authoritative historical pieces on the other?' and I go, 'Because it's balance.' If you just do The Tenements you're BBC4 and if you just do sex you're a porn channel and we have light and shade.

"Sometimes we do strict reality events like Head Chef and we might do Come Dine with Me and then we might do Forgotten Irish or we might do a series we've got coming, The Hospice, or we might do, you know, a campaign over a whole week. We might do a new series with Vincent Browne. You generally find Monday to Thursday is fairly intelligent, boring, authoritative programming and at the weekends it's 'have fun'."

That's the Frow recipe for success in medialand.

"I don't know how to make a television programme, I know nothing about it, but I do know what people want to see and that's why my job at TV3 is just so exciting at the moment."

Sunday Independent

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