With the rapid rise of Netflix and TV on Demand services – as well as the migration of viewers from their time-honoured television sets to tablets, mobile phones and other devices – established institutes like RTÉ and TV3 are adjusting to a brave new world. Meanwhile, UTV’s entrance into the Republic looks set to alter the landscape further. Dean Van Nguyen looks at the changing face of Irish television as we know it.
Originally appears in InBusiness magazine
As the Northern Irish wing of ITV Media, UTV has long been a prominent brand in the Republic, with a generation of viewers from all over the island longfamiliar with the heavily accented stylings of Belfast native Julian Simmons and his trademark overtures that precede the latest instalment of Coronation Street. But the broadcast company – who first went on air back in 1959 – will soon be fully established in the south with plans to launch an all new UTV Ireland station currently in the pipeline. The announcement was made last November and came with a bold rallying cry that the network intends to fully take on our recognised broadcasters.
“In terms of where we see our sights, let me be absolutely clear – we are a mainstream public service broadcaster. We are aiming to go head-to-head with RTÉ and TV3,” said UTV Managing Director Michael Wilson upon the announcement, as reported by the Irish Independent. “It’s one of the most significant investments that UTV has ever made.”
UTV’s entry into the Republic will, of course, take a bite out of RTÉ and TV3’s viewing audience, but it will also have other knockon effects. UTV’s plans hinged on securing exclusive rights to broadcast ITV content in Ireland, meaning TV3 will lose some of their most popular shows like Coronation Street, Emmerdale and The Jeremy Kyle Show. Taking such a hit may appear to be a huge blow for TV3, but management are determined to fill gaps in the schedule with an aggressive new model. Rather than acquiring content from the UK and elsewhere, their focus will now turn to homemade original programming. For the first time in its history, TV3’s programming spend on originated content will exceed its spend on acquisitions.
“It is probably our most ambitious schedule ever,” says Jeff Ford, TV3’s Director of Content. “It’s really utilising all that money that was going to ITV for Coronation Street and Emmerdale, bringing it back here and actually making shows and employing people which is a big thing.”
Home Grown Programming
Focusing on Irish-produced content will certainly benefit the audiovisual industry. Ford estimates that one of TV3’s new flagship programmes – the upcoming twice weekly soap Red Rock – will employ between 100-120 people. Additionally, the company believes the new model will help ensure their financial security by taking the burden off advertising sales – which has been steadily falling worldwide – to generate revenue.
“Instead of being an importer of content you’re an exporter of it, and it also means you can put what you want in the programme. So if we wanted to put some product placement in the soap, for instance, then we can,” says Ford. “If you own the shows you can export them to other countries yourself instead of us buying from other people.”
This strategy has been deployed by RTÉ successfully in recent years. Crime dramas Love/Hate and Amber have been international hits for our state broadcaster. “Obviously advertising has taken a bit of a battering over the last five years so we’ve got to find new ways of sourcing funding,” says Glen Killane, Managing Director of RTÉ Television. “So one of those would be through content sales and intellectual property sales and we’ve led the way in Ireland in format development.”
Helping push RTÉ’s hunger to produce more Irish-made shows is Format Farm, an initiative that supports the production and broadcast of original Irish TV pilots in a variety of genres. Launched in 2012, the scheme calls for new ideas for pilot episodes, the best of which air on primetime RTÉ One and RTÉ Two with a view to developing ideas that can be marketed
internationally. “It was an innovative step by RTÉ. We were the first to
drive it as a collective,” says Killane. “It’s about RTÉ leading the way and encouraging the independent sector and independent producers to look at this as a way we can collaborate and punch through on the international stage.”
While UTV Ireland will compete with RTÉ for viewers, Killane has welcomed their entrance into the Republic, believing domestic competition will help create stronger sector that will ultimately benefit all parties and help fight off a bigger threat – UK-based channels who sell advertising in Ireland. “There’s opportunities for the independent sector and for TV talent to have new outlets for their talents, so I see that as a good thing,” says Killane. “From my perspective, channels based in the UK just selling advertising and contributing nothing to the sector here is a far bigger challenge and far more damaging because they’re not really contributing anything to the Irish audiovisual sector and I think that’s a huge challenge.”
The Cutting Edge
The introduction of UTV to the Irish audiovisual market and the subsequent change in strategy from TV3 will cause a noticeable change for the average Irish TV viewer, but ultimately may be dwarfed in
the recent and rapid evolution of new technologies and changing
consumer habits. Traditional television now runs side-by-side with non-linear viewing systems. Services like the online streaming platform Netflix have grown rapidly while many stations now provide an On Demand service, allowing viewers to watch certain programmes at any time they wish. With technology developing so rapidly – and viewers’ habits following suit – it’s a real challenge for Irish TV stations to keep moving with the times.
“That’s my role, to try to make sure we’re not just following the pack but actually coming out ahead,” says Jill O’Brien, who as TV3’s Head of Digital is responsible for the company’s digital content strategy and has led the expansion of 3 Player – the company’s on-demand service – to a multitude of platforms including desktop, mobile and, more recently, Sky On-Demand, Samsung Smart TV’s and Xbox 360. “We have seen really strong growth. We only launched 3 Player in November 2011 and it’s just been growing since then. Last year there was 32 per cent growth across all of our on-demand platforms.”
In 2011 the California-based Netflix made the bold move of announcing they would be acquiring original content for their subscribers. Beginning last year with the critical and commercial smash hit House of Cards, Netflix have continued to deliver on highly successful shows like dramedy Orange Is the New Black, gangster series Lilyhammer and a fourth season of cult sitcom Arrested Development.
By acquiring exclusive rights to whole series, Netflix’s move was a change in the very fabric of how people watch their shows. Every episode of House of Cards was released at exactly the same time, meaning viewers could watch the 13 instalments at their own pace rather than tuning in at the same time each week. Some have argued that the advent of Netflix and On-Demand TV are killing off what has long been dubbed “Watercooler Television” – where shows are so popular they dominate office conversation the day after they’re aired. Others have praised the model as the future of TV. Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, House of Cards star Kevin Spacey asserted that the success of the Netflix model proved that audiences wanted control. “They want freedom. If they want to binge then we should let them binge.”
Netflix has come a long way in a short space of time and their model has been noted by Irish broadcasters. For example, the first episode of the latest series of RTÉ’s sketch comedy show The Savage Eye premiered on RTÉ Player on Monday 28th April, a whole week before it aired on RTÉ Two. “I think it’s interesting,” says Múirne Laffan, Managing Director of RTÉ Digital who leads the company’s overall digital strategy. “We are really open to experimenting with all of this. Ultimately it’s about meeting audience needs. We’re a public service broadcaster and we have to meet those audience needs and do it in an economically responsible way.”
Laffan, however, doesn’t believe dropping marquee shows all at once is something we’ll see from RTÉ in the near future, asserting that the model isn’t something “economically that would work for us”.
A viewer trend that both RTÉ and TV3 are fully embracing, however, is the use of social media to encourage viewer interaction. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allow users to join in the online conversation in real time. Rather than waiting for that water cooler interaction with a work colleague the day after their favourite show airs, audiences now engage in nationwide discussions from their armchairs before the credits role.
“Integration with social media has been a key driver,” says Laffan. “It really has changed the relationship with audiences, it has changed how we interact with audiences and more or less how they interact with us.”
In encouraging the online conversation, much effort has been made by both networks to create additional online content that might drive a show’s success. TV3’s O’Brien points to The Great Irish Bake Off as an example of how integrating digital platforms into a show can help foster its growth. “This is why it’s so important to be producing our own shows as well, because there is so much more we can do around it in terms of expanding the editorial content. We film online exclusive interviews for our digital department. We house all the recipes there, we’ve a massive social media following that we’re driving through those sites as well. It’s been really beneficial not only in terms of our audience share [and] our international sales potential, but it will also impact our digital audience because we’re able to capitalise on those programmes in the digital sphere as well.”
With so many developments in the way consumers are now accessing content, it raises challenges for those charged with regulation. The job
of policing what appears on our screens falls to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, an organisation formed in 2009 to replace the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC). The BAI regulates content across all broadcasting platforms and their key text in terms of non-linear audiovisual media services is the On Demand Audiovisual Media Services Code. According to BAI Chief Executive Michael O’Keefe, the organisation is currently monitoring new developments relating to how television is consumed.
“From our perspective we’re the regulator of content,” says O’Keefe. “So on one level it’s important for us that we have an awareness of developments in the area [of changing viewer habits], but clearly what concerns us from a regulatory perspective is the regulation of the services. In a lot of cases, as you know, the new services are the same as provided on the linear, traditional broadcasting services. No particular issues arise there. Where it does become an issue is if there’s a service that is separate or distinct from the traditional services and how they are captured from a regulatory perspective.”
One of the challenges from a regulator’s point of view is the last major piece of regulation in this area was the Audiovisual Media Services Directive which was introduced by the European Commission in 2009. The BAI transposed all of the requirements from that directive to their On Demand Audiovisual Media Services Code in 2011 and that’s effectively the regulatory regime we currently have in Ireland.
"I suppose what’s happened is that in the last number of years things have moved on in certain areas but the regulation hasn’t tended to change,” says O’Keefe. “There has been discussion. We meet twice a year with a European regulatory group who meets with the European Commission. There has been some discussion about a revision of that directive. But the view at the moment has been to take things relatively steady because the industry is new and they’re reluctant to have too much regulatory intervention at this time. So there are discussions at a European level but there are no plans at this stage to revise the regulatory structure in place.”
UTV Ireland will begin broadcasting in the Republic of Ireland in January 2015, offering the Irish public an even wider choice of programming. With the rapid acceleration of technology tough to predict, new challenges will continue to arise for Ireland’s audiovisual sector, but there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that content will always be king. And as long as that remains a central ethos, it’s the viewer who will benefit the most.