Sinead Kissane: RTE moved with the times but the times are now moving with RTE
Broadcaster steps aside after setting the standard for others to follow
This was no ordinary day. The army bomb squad had swept through the RTE studio with sniffer dogs to do a security check. It was Saturday, February 24, 2007 and Ireland were preparing to play England in the Six Nations at Croke Park.
Everything was heightened that day, from security to anxiety to anticipation. RTE commentator Ryle Nugent felt sick with nerves in the build-up. He was conscious of not making any glib comment or misinterpreting any moment.
"You just knew that every word that came out of your mouth had the potential to inflame something or not be reflective of the mood whether in the stadium or people watching at home," Nugent remembers. "My heart was in my mouth because nobody really knew what was going to happen.
"I knew if anything went wrong - and I was pretty confident that it wouldn't - I was going to have to be the first person to say something about it because I was commentating."
Calling-it has been their calling-card. The anthems went off without incident. As Tom McGurk, who was RTE's presenter, recalls: "It was a big growing-up moment for everybody."
A lot of us grew up with RTE's coverage of a sport which was itself growing in popularity. The commentaries of Fred Cogley and Jim Sherwin are instant shots of nostalgia. The RTE panel was a tug between "did you hear what Hook said?" to "thank God for Conor O'Shea (right)" as each panellist's view was magnified against the other's.
This elixir worked because you didn't need to be a rugby-head to start forming your own views on the back of what they said in studio. They got you involved, they made you have an opinion and it meant that you felt part of it.
Ten years on from that historic day at Croke Park, the landscape is changing for RTE. Today will be the final day the national broadcaster will televise Six Nations matches, with the TV rights going to TV3 from next season for four years.
Plenty has evolved since RTE started broadcasting the tournament. Up to the end of the 1980s, the BBC used to hold the Irish TV rights as well as the British.
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According to John D O'Brien, who was executive producer of most of the rugby output from 1981 to 2003, part of the deal for RTE was to deliver up-to-scratch coverage, but also to entertain the BBC crew when they were in Dublin for an Ireland game!
"It meant leaving the rehearsals and going to Jurys in Ballsbridge and entertaining all the greats of British broadcasting like Bill McLaren and Bill Beaumont," O'Brien says. Not a bad lunch break.
The 1982 Triple Crown-winning match at Lansdowne Road was the first time RTE did live post-match interviews. They had good access to Ireland training in Anglesea Road and did interviews with players the week leading up to a game (a few times O'Brien spotted the late Richard Harris watching the team train).
When the BBC started doing live post-match interviews, RTE had to keep up. So O'Brien convinced the IRFU of the merit of this latest innovation.
As well as Irish teams - from the national side to the provinces - becoming successful, one of the biggest draws for RTE was Hook and Brent Pope. They looked at the magic of Dunphy and Giles with the football coverage and wanted to mimic it with rugby.
"I was incredibly lucky that Hook and Pope arrived because they were the business," McGurk says. "I think people sensed that the panel was for real. When my 89-year-old aunty Nancy could watch this and enjoy it, when the old lady would come up to you in the supermarket and asked you about it. . . We became a sort of soap. It was getting beyond the traditional rugby audience."
Glen Killane, former group head of RTE Sport and current managing director of eir Sport, adds: "An awful lot happened at the same time. Ulster, Munster, Leinster. The emergence of O'Driscoll. The golden generation.
"We probably were averaging 300-350,000 (viewers). We looked back at the viewing figures from around 2002-'05/06 and the figures for rugby on RTE had increased by something like 80pc.
"It was quite extraordinary in terms of the up-lift."
In recent years, the panel needed a shake-up and it got it. The addition of two players who played such a pivotal role in that win over England in 2007, Shane Horgan and Ronan O'Gara, as analysts is perhaps a reflection of our need for more in-depth commentary by players who are fresh out of playing. But RTE remained conscious of hitting the balance.
"There is a requirement to remember that you've got an audience that is aged between eight and 80. And that audience is part technical, part floating, part occasion-chaser, part fundamentalist fan of the sport and you've got to try and balance it," Nugent says.
It's worked, and the figures don't lie. Despite competition from BBC and ITV during the Six Nations, RTE has more than held its own. Ireland's game against Wales last Friday night averaged 818,000 viewers, with nearly a 51pc share. It is pulling power which leaves you asking one question: what were the other 50pc watching?
RTE moved with the times but the times are now moving with RTE. Sports rights are a moveable feast between various free-to-air and pay-per-view broadcasters. In an incredibly challenging time for TV, the one thing we will always do is sit down and watch live sport.
RTE delivered on that. And they set the standard for others to follow.
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