Will TV3 be able to beat RTÉ at its own game?
John Meagher on the challenge facing Montrose as the nation tunes into Euro 2016
The opulent French Ambassador's residence in Dublin's ultra-expensive Ailesbury Road was the glamorous place where RTÉ chose to launch its coverage of the Euro 2016 this week.
The national broadcaster was suitably bullish about what will be its first major sporting tournament since the 2014 World Cup, and after the disappointment about being outbid by TV3 for last year's Rugby World Cup.
It will show all Ireland's matches, starting with our opening game against Sweden in Paris's Stade de France on Monday week. And it will have exclusive Irish rights to Friday's opener between hosts France and Romania.
But RTÉ won't have it all to itself: it will be sharing coverage with its chief rival, TV3, having subleased 21 matches to the west Dublin station just two months ago. With the Euros admitting 24 teams for the first time, the thinking in Montrose was that it would be foolhardy - and expensive - to attempt to cover all 51 matches.
The broadcaster's budget has been stretched this year due to the 1916 Centenary coverage and the General Election, and there's the not inconsiderable matter of the Olympic Games in Rio just around the corner. When it acquired the rights to the expanded tournament, it was always its intention to sell off a chunk of the matches in order to be financially prudent. Sports rights rarely make broadcasters money, even in an environment where ad-spend is up on what it was during Euro 2012.
TV3, for their part, were happy to jump in, although some observers have noted that they have had little time to prepare. "Two months didn't give them much time to put everything in place," says one well-placed source. Such matters are unlikely to be of concern for football fans here, who will be able to choose whether to watch the July 10 final on either RTÉ or TV3.
It is not, strictly speaking, the first time both stations have shown matches from the same tournament. In Euro 2004, held in Greece, TV3 broadcast a handful of games that were clashing time-wise with matches on RTÉ. But, on this occasion, there's a sense that two very different broadcasters will be vying for the hearts and minds of the viewing public.
For RTÉ's head of sport, Ryle Nugent, the tournament is one that transcends sport. "There are a lot of people who would dearly love to be at France for the games, so what we want to do is bring them as close to the action as possible," he says.
As a 'legacy broadcaster', RTÉ is no stranger to hosting huge sporting events, but TV3 is still learning the ropes having had a good grounding when they outbid RTÉ to secure the rights to last year's Rugby World Cup.
"TV3 impressed many with their coverage of the World Cup last year," says a freelance sports producer, "and there's a feeling that they'll deliver a decent experience for the viewer with the Euros. Their soccer coverage overall has improved and Tommy Martin [who will be anchoring TV3's coverage] has developed into a really solid broadcaster. For RTÉ, there's a real sense of transition. This will be the first tournament without [the late] Bill O'Herlihy, and the last with Johnny Giles, but Darragh Maloney is a fine presenter who's already well known and, I think, well liked by viewers."
"Bill is dearly missed out here," says Nugent, "and his contribution to Irish sports broadcasting was immense, but our lead anchor Darragh Maloney has been in the chair for two years."
RTÉ's big signing is Damien Duff - an unknown quantity when it comes to punditry - but a man who has played to the highest level, including appearances at the 2002 World Cup and Ireland's disastrous showing at the Euros four years ago.
TV3 have gone straight for controversy with their acquisition of Joey Barton, the outspoken Englishman who has just signed for Glasgow Rangers. "He's highly opinionated, and speaks his mind," says TV3's head of sport, Kieran Holden, "although we were as surprised as anyone when he signed for Rangers and hope it won't affect the amount of time he has available for us." (The Scottish season kicks off far earlier than its English counterpart.)
The pursuit of such a divisive pundit seems at odds with TV3's apparent aim during last year's Rugby World Cup to deliver effective analysis that didn't court controversy. But it's a shrewd move, according to a broadcaster who has worked at both TV3 and RTÉ.
"There's a job to inform, but also to entertain," he says. "It would be very foolish to forget the latter, and I think Barton will do the business for them. He has a marvellous talent for stoking up controversy on social media, so they'll be hoping he can do the same on air too. Their pundits are a bit 'dry' at present, and while I'm first in the queue to be infuriated by what Mr [Eamon] Dunphy says, a lot of people are drawn to RTÉ's coverage because of the stuff he says."
Dunphy was in typically polarising form after the Champions League Final last Saturday when he suggested that the Spain's La Liga - which supplied both finalists - was a weak league. "He's got the pithy soundbite down to a fine art," says the broadcaster. "And he infuriates people - but they still tune in. It's a bit like the Rose of Tralee - half the population says they hate it, yet they're all glued to their TV screens."
The veteran pundit made his debut for RTÉ during the 1978 World Cup. Back then, it would have been impossible to conceive of female football analysts, but that's changed. Euro 2016 will see three female pundits parsing the games. RTÉ has internationals Niamh Fahey and Stephanie Roche - who came to worldwide attention after being nominated for the FIFA Puskas Award for best goal. TV3, meanwhile, will have Emma Byrne on their team.
"Emma is someone who has won nine league titles [as Arsenal Ladies goalkeeper] and has been capped by Ireland 126 times," Kieran Holden says. "When you look at those achievements, it's a no-brainer."
For RTÉ, some old reliables are firmly in place, including the Après Match comedy team who have been providing an irreverent take on football for more than two decades, but there's new blood too - with former youth programming host Aidan Power joining forces with Radio 1 sports broadcaster Jacqui Hurley for a nightly highlights show.
For its part, TV3 will broadcast a weekly half-hour programme called Extra Time, which will take a lighter look at the tournament. It will be presented by Newstalk's Joe Molloy, who helmed the well-received show, The Sin Bin, during the Rugby World Cup, and by Kirsteen O'Sullivan, whose past work at the Ballymount broadcaster includes stints on their Champions League coverage and the popular female-orientated show Xposé.