Monday 26 February 2018

Comment: Sky deal has been a badly-needed rocket up the backside for RTÉ

The State broadcaster has more than enough as it stands. It is more choice we need, not less. Photo: PA
The State broadcaster has more than enough as it stands. It is more choice we need, not less. Photo: PA

Tommy Conlon

You can make any amount of valid arguments for and against the Sky deal, but if I'd had a choice last Sunday I'd have abandoned RTÉ at half-time in the Connacht football final, if not well before it.

But I didn't have a choice, so Ger Canning it was. Sigh. Deep sigh.

Roscommon were seven up by the interval. A major shock was on the cards. They had just scored one of the goals of the season. And what is Michael Lyster's very first question to Pat Spillane about that first half? He asks him if this is another example of "puke football".

In the vast corpus of vacuous questions asked on The Sunday Game, stretching back over 30 years, this was another prize dud. RTé's sports department was well aware long ago that viewers found much of their coverage of Gaelic games a perpetual aggravation. But all this time the GAA fan has had to put up or shut up, year after year after year. In recent years RTé finally copped itself on and tweaked its human and technical resources.

One of the reasons it bit the bullet was competition. Newstalk's Off the Ball show was pioneering a new era in Irish sports broadcasting. A young generation of programme makers with ideas and energy were providing a fresh, contemporary alternative to the stagnant establishment fare.

Same in television. The record shows that when RTé sport had a monopoly, it was careless and complacent. For decades it covered the GAA championships like it was ticking boxes on a form. Middling was good enough. The viewers had no place else to turn anyway.

But many of the same viewers were also tuning into the Sky Sports Premier League revolution. They could easily compare and contrast the colour and noise with the usual stodge on The Sunday Game. Multiple cameras and super slow-motion replays, among other technological innovations, were revealing the match action like never before. It took years for RTé to catch up.

It still hasn't caught up but in fairness its technical coverage has made a quantum leap over the last decade or so. But it has always needed the cattle prod of competition. The likes of TV3 and Setanta Sports and TG4 nibbled away at its monopoly and in reply, the State broadcaster would raise its game.

Since 2014, Sky has also started taking chunks out of its GAA inheritance. And once again it has put the proverbial rocket up RTé's backside. Last December Croke Park announced that it had signed with Sky for five more years in a new media rights deal which, along with RTé's majority portion, yielded the GAA an estimated €80m.

The deal with Sky has been widely scorned and resented; Croke Park has been castigated for selling out to a pay-per-view corporate behemoth.

In reality, Sky has been a godsend for the GAA. It has given the association the one weapon it lacked during its long relationship with RTé: leverage, bargaining power, an auction in the market. It has forced RTé to pay a lot more for the prime television content that is the GAA championships. And it stands as a warning to RTé not to take it for granted anymore.

Having done so, Croke Park will presumably be telling Sky sooner rather than later that they need to raise their game too. Their coverage is dutiful, deferential and safe. There is a basic cultural feel for Gaelic games that is missing. The championship is an unruly beast, a freewheeling spirit, an outdoor carnival rather than a sit-down concert. Sky needs to loosen a few buttons on its shirt and capture a bit of the madcap energy outside the windows.

If its coverage has been disappointing, its viewing figures have been disastrous. But, as far as the GAA is concerned, it has already paid its way by entering the market at all.

The big blunder Croke Park made in its latest deal was excluding Newstalk. The station in its live coverage of games had once again outclassed its Montrose rival in terms of energy, innovation and pure broadcasting talent. Perhaps this was a sop to RTé in the overall negotiations?

On last weekend's Sunday Game highlights show, Michael Duignan branded the Sky deal "disgraceful". He didn't use an argument, he went for the emotional blackmail option. He's not the only one trying to discomfit Croke Park with that old pity-the-poor line, normally deployed by assorted left-wing academics and politicians who apparently believe that nobody should have to pay for anything.

It seems to be forgotten that RTé still enjoys an overwhelming share of the championship market. On the same highlights show it had so many games to cover that it barely covered them at all. The Mayo-Clare qualifier in Ennis was edited down to one minute and 53 seconds of action. The Waterford-Kilkenny match, all 90-plus minutes of it, was cut to eight minutes and 22 seconds.

The State broadcaster has more than enough as it stands. It is more choice we need, not less.

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