Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Will UTV Ireland's arrival mean curtains for TV3?

The vibrant, young face of TV3.

Messi and Ronaldo. Blair and Brown. Kerry and Dublin. Blur and Oasis. People just love rivalries. The bloodier the better. With UTV Ireland set to begin broadcasting next January, there's a new rivalry in town; UTV and TV3. Who will win the coveted prize of being second in the ratings behind RTE? The safe bet seems to be UTV who have money and prestige behind them. So can TV3 survive with a new kid on the block? Let's investigate.

The general consensus, online and among people I've spoken to, is that TV3 faces a grim and uncertain future. Even people in the industry, such as Gay Byrne (who is a totally impartial authority on the matter), have questioned whether TV3 will be able to survive. Quite a few people have speculated on whether they'll even see out the decade.

It's quite a natural conclusion to arrive at when you inspect TV3's programming schedule over the last number of years. They've gorged themselves on a host of shows syndicated from ITV like Coronation Street, Emmerdale, the X Factor and Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway for over a decade. That was never going to be a sustainable model and UTV's move into the Republic, which would inevitably result in TV3 losing the rights to many of those shows, was hardly a massive surprise.

Worryingly for TV3, an area in which the station has miserably performed since its inception in 1998 is homegrown productions. The Vincent Browne Show is the only TV3 production I can think of that could be considered a “trademark” show, like The Late Late Show is to RTE. Their other homegrown productions have largely consisted of half-baked imitations of ITV shows (Ireland AM=GMTV, Midday=Loose Women) and half-baked remakes of actual ITV shows (Take Me Out, All Star Family Fortunes).

While RTE may be up there with the rain, Bono and government ministers at the top of the list of “things Irish people love to complain about”, it has an identity (of sorts) and both RTE 1 and RTE 2 have a target audience which they (at least somewhat) know how to cater for. It helps that they pull in the license fee money obviously, but RTE has some low-budget shows, the type TV3 could conceivably create, which have proved very successful such as Reeling in the Years. To TV3's credit, they seem to have identified this as a major problem. Since 2008 they claim to have made a concerted effort to produce more homegrown productions and their director of content Jeff Ford says they aim to be “delivering over 50% home-produced content” in 2015. Now it's just about picking the right ones.

In addition to TV3's problem with homegrown productions, many people have begun to speculate whether the Irish television market is even big enough for RTE, UTV and TV3 to operate in. While RTE will surely remain kingpin, popular thought seems to suggest that UTV Ireland will dislodge TV3 as the nation's second broadcaster. And can TV3 remain functioning and profitable in 3rd place?

But let's park the bus on that for a minute and see what TV3 can do. It doesn't have to be an inevitability that UTV Ireland will automatically oust TV3 in the ratings. Certainly, with TV3's current schedule, it seems likely but TV3 have released their own contingency plan, in the form of an Autumn Schedule Launch, as a thinly veiled response to UTV Ireland's arrival so let's inspect the viability of that. Let's not all get snooty about this before we begin and lambast TV3's soaps and homegrown productions as low-brow; this isn't about TV3 producing the 21st century's answer to The Ascent of Man but rather them producing and broadcasting commercially viable shows.

The centre-piece of TV3's Autumn schedule is a soap opera named Red Rock that will be set in a Garda Station in a fictional Dublin harbour town. The show will encompass the wider community and plots and stories will emanate from rather than be based around the Garda station, claims producer John Yorke. It's certainly an ambitious project and, in my opinion, TV3's effort at creating a “trademark” show, one which is an instantly recognisible part of the TV3 brand. First and foremost however, it is a replacement for the ratings-magnets Coronation Street and Emmerdale which are two of the shows they're losing to ITV. People are creatures of habit and don't embrace change very quickly so Red Rock may take time and money before (if it ever) succeeds. The premise is certainly more intriguing than the standard street cobbles and bored housewives schtick we've become accustomed to but this is one TV3 will need to stick with and trust their writers if it's to properly get off the ground.

Other home grown productions include; Jason Byrne's Snaptastic Show (the show will see the comedian interview a series of celebrities on their past while trawling through their family photo albums), The Algorithim (a quiz show of sorts hosted by Ray Foley), A TD in my House (poverty porn where a TD will live with a poor family for a week to see how shit it is to be poor), Blind Date (Another ITV remake hosted by Lucy Kennedy) and Islanders (Documentary on people living on islands off the coast of Ireland). Again, you may be tutting and sticking your nose up at some of these low-brow shows but, I must refrain, it doesn't matter if these shows end up making Tallafornia look like an existentialist exploration of modern capitalist society; all that matters is that people watch them. And they might watch some of them.

Moving away from light entertainment, TV3 are also buffing up their home-produced primetime news shows and documentaries. David McWilliams, Donal McIntyre and Anton Savage have all been given primetime slots and will probably host Prime Time-esque shows, i.e. Serious men talking about serious topics in a serious setting. For me, Savage is the most affable of that lot but which of them will provide Pat Kenny on UTV with the most competition is anyone's guess.

For some peculiar reason, TV3 seem quite proud of their track record on documentaries. Judging by what they say in the press release for their Autumn launch, anyway. After all, who could criticise masterpieces of journalistic endeavour like Garth Brooks: What Went Wrong? and The Town Travellers Took Over? They need to change tack when it comes to documentaries as TV3 have gained a reputation for producing trashy and reactionary documentaries in recent years, my two listed examples as cases in point. Islanders, which I mentioned in the previous paragraph, seems like a good start. TV3's most ambitious project in this field this year, however, is The Guarantee, which is a docu-drama that will chronicle the events of the night the Irish Government decided to guarantee the entire domestic banking system. This is a movie and will be shown in cinemas before it's shown on TV3. It's a really bold move from TV3 and if it works out, it could change the way TV3 productions are perceived.

Finally, we'll focus on sport and this where I feel TV3 have actually done quite well. They've made some really shrewd investments for the next year or two and this will guarantee a core viewership. Firstly, they've retained the right to cover UEFA Champions League matches which is a massive boon. TV3's presenters and pundits may not be as endearing as Dunphy and the lads but people would watch Champions League football if Jimmy Savile rose from the grave and began hosting it.

Secondly, they have exclusive rights to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Again, this is a guaranteed viewers bonanza. They'll be praying for Ireland to do well because if Ireland reach the latter stages, they'll be looking at some serious viewing figures. TG4 hit a mini jackpot when the women's team beat New Zealand and reached the semi-finals of the World Cup earlier in the summer; imagine if the men did something similar.

Thirdly, they've very shrewdly acquired the rights to broadcast UFC Fight Nights which will be broadcast on 3e. Conor McGregor's fight on 3e last June pulled in a whopping 600,000 viewers and while some of that can be attributed to the popularity of the Dublin native, there is definitely a market for oiled-up, semi-clad men grappling and wrestling in steel cages in Ireland.

There's other, small things that TV3 can do. They should finally start broadcasting in HD. It's been a stated promise for three years now but here we are, still with pathetic standard definition. They've promised it will be rolled out for the Rugby World Cup which is important as sport is really where you notice the difference between HD and standard definition. They could also bundle Alan Hughes into the boot of a Renault Megane and abandon it somewhere in the Wicklow Mountains but that's just a personal suggestion.

In all seriousness, it is a fascinating moment in Irish television history and it is actually quite reminiscent of American TV in the 50s. Back then, NBC and CBS were unquestionably the top dogs while ABC and Dumont were left to fight it out for third place in a crowded market. It was a heated battle between the two stations but by 1956, Dumont had folded and ABC, which has produced shows like Modern Family, Desperate Housewives and Lost, had established itself as one of the Big Three in American TV.

Why did Dumont lose? Because ABC started out as a radio station back when radio was king and had a plethora of radio stars who were familiar to the American public to call in. TV3 and UTV Ireland are in a similar-ish position. UTV have got some storied, well-established shows that are in the can. Shows Irish people already love. The onus is on TV3 to produce something new, something fresh. That's a lot more difficult but if the ideas are there and the faith in homegrown production is there, TV3 don't have to go down the route of Dumont 60 years ago.

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