By Andrew Dickens 23-10-2014
The ears of the Irish television community surely pricked up when Northern Ireland’s UTV Media revealed plans for a station south of the border last year. Indeed, UTV Ireland will mark a bold new foray into the Republic when it launches there in January 2015.
The fledgling Dublin-based network will enter an already saturated market that includes the channels of pubcaster RTÉ, BBC1 Northern Ireland and Irish-language station TG4, and it’s likely to face an early battle persuading some viewers to tune in.
Yet if you’ve read the Irish press recently you will have seen plenty of articles suggesting UTV Ireland is already well on the way to reaching its target of becoming the most-watched channel in Ireland after RTÉ1.
The glowing pre-match references are largely thanks to UTV Ireland taking exclusive rights to cash-cow soaps Coronation Street and Emmerdale in the Republic from UK broadcaster ITV.
The deal has come as a blow to Irish commercial broadcaster TV3, which currently airs both shows under licence. It also puts significant pressure on RTÉ, as a presence north and south of the border would give UTV more firepower in bidding for international rights to other programmes – not to mention advertisers.
But if you’re of the opinion that TV3 will simply be brushed aside, then think again. Of course, it is expected that TV3 will have to claw back the advertising cash it sheds from losing two of the UK’s biggest soaps; and it may well take a hammering in current affairs as UTV will have access to ITV’s global news service. But there’s more to securing a new channel’s future than poaching two British soap operas and producing a one-hour news programme hosted by veteran Irish presenter Pat Kenny.
On a recent visit to the Republic, I spoke to a few of the locals about this issue. Many said it would take years for UTV to crack the Irish market, regardless of airing popular soaps, while others saw the channel as a mere expansion of UTV’s Northern Irish office that would bring nothing new to the table.
Some even disliked the idea of yet another non-Irish broadcaster trying to make a play into the Republic and felt it would take something away from the country’s identity.
All are valid points. But the news that only 10% of UTV Ireland’s content will be home-grown begs the question does the country actually need another television channel.
While the percentage of the new channel’s local output is expected to increase, Irish producers won’t be thrilled by the limited commissioning opportunities it offers them. Initially, audiences may well be pulled in by the novelty of UTV Ireland, but they will need more than soaps and a couple of Irish TV icons to keep them happy.
In the summer, TV3 announced it was launching plenty of home-produced shows as part of its 2014 autumn season and 2015 programming plans. The Ballymount-based group will invest more than half of its programming budget in locally produced content over the next year, with more than 2,500 hours of home-produced content to be aired in 2015. The channel will also broadcast 30 new original programmes and eight new entertainment shows. This includes new soap Red Rock, produced by Dublin-based Element and the UK’s Company Pictures for a January 2015 premiere. TV3 will hope this series can regain some of the eyeballs it expects to lose after UTV’s raid on Emmerdale and Corrie.
But let’s not forget that channel launches are seldom easy, taking time and much expense to get right. UTV Ireland is expected to shoulder losses of between £2m (US$3.3m) and £3m next year but says it will move into profitability by the second half of 2015. Despite this, UTV group chief executive John McCann has said Ireland’s improving economic conditions “bode well” for the launch.
But while UTV Ireland gets up and running, TV3 is trying its hardest to be proactive, bolstering its original programming offering to Irish audiences already familiar with its brand. Needless to say, TV3’s resilience will be the toughest nut for UTV Ireland to crack.