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  • A centenary to remember: Titanic on screen

    January 31, 2012 @ 8:00 am | by Laura Slattery

    Glossing aside for one moment, or indeed forever more, the ever-so-slight contradiction in celebrating a feat of engineering that rather swiftly became a byword for disaster, April 15th marks 100 years since the sinking of the Titanic, and more cash-ins abound than there were passengers on board. From the shipyards of Belfast to the decades of survivors’ guilt that followed, expect the story of this all-too-sinkable ship to make regular appearances on your television and cinema screens this spring. Here are just five of the Titanic-themed offerings sending maritime thrills and chills your way:

    1. Titanic 3D. Jack! Rose! Jack! Rose! You remember this one, from director and Titanic obsessive James Cameron. Travel back in time to 1912 / 1997 to watch a boyish Leonardo di Caprio declare himself “king of the world” in full retro-fitted 3D glory, his arms stretching out into the cinema from the bow of the ship. Marvel as the stern rises in the air and plunges into the ocean, bodies hurtling off the sides and water lapping over the heads of your fellow cinema-goers. And pause to note how Kate Winslet’s survival is indeed a historically accurate reflection of the ship’s “women and children first” policy. It’s due out April 6th… you know you want to.

    2. Titanic: Blood and Steel. Directed by Ciaran Donnelly and filmed in both Dublin and Serbia, this 12-part mini-series sounds like it has the biggest potential tourism “ker-ching” for Belfast. Rather than concentrating on the ill-fated maiden voyage itself, the action starts in 1897, telling the story of the ship’s 15-year construction in Edwardian Belfast. Expect to hear dialogue that goes a bit like this (only more authentically Edwardian)… Harland and Wolff shipyard manager: “But, sir, the ship’s capable of carrying 64 lifeboats!” J Bruce Ismay, White Star Line president: “Bloody hell, that’s a bit pricey. Happily, we’re only legally required to carry a quarter of that amount.”

    3. Titanic. This four-part UK / Canada  / Hungary co-production is scripted by Julian “Downton Abbey” Fellowes, so expect the upstairs-downstairs angle to be propelled to the fore. It boasts an impressive cast, including Toby Jones, David Calder, Lyndsey Marshal, Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, James Wilby, Peter Wight, Celia Imrie and Ireland’s own Maria Doyle Kennedy. Due to be simulcast on ITV1 and TV3 on Thursdays starting from April 12th, this really does contain the famous last words “we’ll never need lifeboats for every passenger” – the trailer, which modestly describes the show as “the television event of 2012”, is now on YouTube. Let’s hope it’s more original than its title.

    4. Saving the Titanic. Announced as part of RTÉ’s spring schedule, Saving the Titanic is a drama documentary  focusing on the “engine room heroes” who worked to keep the electric power running as the ship sank – their sacrifice not only kept the lights on, but meant the electric lifeboat winches remained operational, allowing others to survive. The docudrama, co-produced by Ireland’s Tile Films and Germany’s GebruederBeetzFilmproduktion, is based on eye-witness accounts of nine engineers who worked among the coal-fired furnaces and massive dynamos to satisfy the ship’s demand for electricity. It will be shown at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival on February 17th.

    5. Titanic and Me. The BBC’s contribution to the genre, this documentary series is presented by Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman, who aspires to “delve beyond the Hollywood myths and into the lives of the families who struggled with the loss of husbands, wives, sons and daughters”. Given the last surviving passenger of the Titanic died in 2009, testimonies come from descendants “for whom the Titanic is part of family folklore”. Shot in Southhampton and Northern Ireland, the three half-hour episodes have been made for the BBC by Derry-based history specialists 360 Production. What’s Len Goodman got to do with all of this? Well, he used to be a welder at Harland and Wolff – so there.

    And if all of these tragic delights leave you iceberg-cold, well there’s always Bee Gee Robin Gibb’s classical music tribute, Titanic Requiem.

  • Television in Ireland: the next 50 years revealed

    December 31, 2011 @ 11:36 am | by Laura Slattery

    Even if you don’t own a television, you’ll be seeing and hearing a lot about the 50th anniversary of television in Ireland over the next few days. It will go something like this: Seán Lemass… well Holy God… one for everyone in the audience… okey-doke… #JeanByrne. But enough of all this rampant nostalgia: what about the next 50 years? Here’s a run-down of events as they are likely to happen.

    2012: Analogue television is switched off, leaving snowy screens in households where the grand-kids forgot to bring round a Saorview set-top box. Audience ratings for Nationwide plummet.

    2013: Eamon Ryan wins the first ever series of Celebrity Mastermind and uses the glory of victory to relaunch the Green Party. The format is not renewed.

    2014: The Late Late Show viewer ratings are decimated as TV3 schedule a Friday night Irish version of Total Wipeout, hosted by Georgia Salpa.

    2016: RTÉ drops the Angelus and attempts to placate furious fans of middle-distance stares by making it available as an app for owners of Smart TVs.

    2017: There’s relief for Dave Fanning as he finally gets to the end of a question he started asking Michael Stipe on 2TV in 1995.

    2020: A TV3 documentary on breastfeeding falls foul of Apple TV’s terms and conditions on pornography and is removed from the TV3 channel app, sparking a public outcry. TV3 successfully appeals the decision. A publicity stunt is suspected.

    2021: After a landslide “yes” vote in that year’s referendum, it becomes a criminal offence to quote from a Financial Regulator TV ad that ran during the Noughties.

    2023: The labour market is inundated with unfeasibly chirpy continuity announcers who are laid off en masse after Irish media companies declare that no one watches “linear” television anymore.

    2027: Rigorous consumer research reveals that the phrase “roll it there, Róisín” has faded from the collective folk memory, although nursing homes are full of people still banging on about someone called Sally O’Brien.

    2029: As property prices make a return to “2007 levels”, RTÉ sells Montrose. The demolition goes smoothly, aside from a last minute protest by Charlie Bird. Within months, there is no evidence that RTÉ was ever located there, although the new owners confess to being spooked by the occasional sight of a flying vehicle later identified as the Wanderly Wagon.

    2032: After one cutback in the newsroom budget too many, Bryan Dobson has a “Network” moment. He is replaced by Craig Doyle.

    2036: TV3 admits it’s not the “real” Vincent Browne who hosts its late-night current affairs show, but a digitally generated avatar programmed to raise its voice in response to a fixed list of trigger words. The channel’s press office declines to specify when exactly the switch was made.

    2043: The analogue-era game-show Where in the World is relaunched as Where in the Solar System as the format is updated for the age of cheap commercial space travel. The losers are sent on a one-way trip to ex-planet Pluto.

    2045: Shortly after Christmas, RTÉ shows the vintage film 2046 as its Midweek Movie, even though the title refers to a hotel room number and not a calendar year.

    2061: As a series of virtual-reality riots tear a rip in the space-time continuum on the eve of Irish television’s centenary, the RTÉ News Channel is criticised for failing to provide live coverage of Ireland’s descent into a black hole. It opts instead to stick with a repeat of Reeling in the Years.

  • Analogue age set to expire amid economic gloom

    May 16, 2011 @ 6:43 pm | by Laura Slattery

    Ireland’s urban-rural screen divide has been neatly highlighted in a report by Behaviour & Attitudes on TV viewing methods in Ireland - my own preferred method being the time-honoured 4-3-3 of three cushions, three remotes and four minutes for the DVD player to reach its main menu.

    Living in set-top box land, it’s been easy to dismiss the import of Ireland’s belated switchover to digital terrestrial television (DTT) and just assume everyone in Ireland is by now familiar with such eclectic digital delights as, say, BBC Four quiz Only Connect, on which contestants regularly announce “we’ll have the Twisted Flax” in reference to Egyptian hieroglyphics, and ITV2’s The Only Way is Essex, where if a twisted flax ever did come up, it would probably mean something else entirely.

    However, the survey of 1,100 households, commissioned by the Department of Communications, extrapolates that a significant 16 per cent of “TV homes” – an estimated 254,000 households – rely solely on terrestrial television, while some 10 per cent have access to Irish terrestrial channels only. Two thirds of terrestrial TV homes are located in rural areas, with just 1 per cent of Dublin homes having access only to Irish terrestrial channels, compared to 28 per cent of “Munster Rural” homes.

    Behaviour & Attitudes also finds that heads of households relying on Irish terrestrial services are more likely than average to be in receipt of the Household Benefit Payment Scheme (which includes a free TV licence), are more likely to be working in manual occupations and are more likely to be retired.

    Given the high numbers of households involved, it’s clear that the Department and its Minister, Pat Rabbitte, still have a lot of work to do on the information side of DTT’s troubled advent. Presumably the survey result that only a third of Irish terrestrial TV homes were aware of the pending analogue switch-off is already a little out of date – it was conducted last November, while the marketing campaign for Saorview, RTÉ’s free-to-air DTT service, only began in March.

    However, the socio-economics of Ireland’s analogue demographic will be potentially costly for the Department to negotiate. Analogue-dependent viewers upgrading to Saorview will need to purchase a Saorview-compatible television or a set-top box. The latter are currently available for a not-so-free €100, according to the Department, though prices are predicted to fall by the analogue switch-off date at the end of 2012.

    One Behaviour & Attitudes survey finding that didn’t make the Department’s press release is that 77 per cent of TV homes said they would “definitely not” be buying a new television set within the next six months. “All in all, it seems likely that between no more than 3 and 5 per cent of all Irish TV households will invest in a new TV set over the next six months or so, regardless of reception type,” the research firm concludes.

    “With roughly a third of all TV householders (regardless of reception type) admitting that they are struggling from a financial perspective, it is clear from all of the survey data that many TV homes would find it difficult to invest any significant amount of money in new TV equipment as part of the analogue switch-off process,” it warns. Well, that’s the economy for you.

    The researchers go on to stress: “It is important to note that very low numbers of TV households (including analogue households) are planning to purchase a new TV set in the immediate future, suggesting that the adoption of new technology alone cannot be relied upon as a means of empowering households with new TV reception systems.” Ouch.

    Rabbitte has indicated that “practical measures to assist in the switchover” are imminent. Leaflet drops will not, by themselves, be enough. A subvention scheme for analogue households will have to be implemented in the next 19 months – otherwise the screens of thousands of older people living in sparsely populated areas will simply fade to black, while ratings for the 2013 Rose of Tralee contest and a raft of other RTÉ jewels will plunge.

  • Punky, a cartoon heroine for the Saorview age

    April 13, 2011 @ 12:58 pm | by Laura Slattery
    Meet Punky. She has Down syndrome, and she’s the eponymous star of a new animated series that will be broadcast weekdays on RTÉjr from May 3rd. The producers, Monster Animation & Design, say Punky - on the verge of becoming the latest success story for Irish animation – is the first ever animated TV series where the lead character has Down syndrome.

    The character of Punky, created by the writer Lindsay Jane Sedgwick, is voiced by Aimee Richardson, who herself has Down syndrome and Down Syndrome Ireland reviewed material during production of the series. “It’s basically a look at everyday life from Punky’s perspective. It’s her daily routine,” says Monster’s Gerard O’Rourke. “She lives in the moment.”

    Punky, a new series produced by Irish animation company Monster

    Monster, which has a track record in animated kids’ TV shows through Ballybraddan and Fluffy Gardens, was approached to produce the series by the Irish Film Board, which had granted development money to Sedgwick. RTÉ was keen on the project and commissioned it, while Monster also secured licence fee funding from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Sound & Vision Fund.

    After several phases of development, it was decided that Punky would be aimed at the discerning preschool audience. The 20 episodes, each seven minutes long, will be broadcast twice a day on the RTÉjr programming block of RTÉ 2, before finding another home later in the summer on the dedicated RTÉjr channel on Saorview, RTÉ’s free-to-air digital terrestrial television (DTT) service. 

    “To have a dedicated children’s channel is an amazing thing,” says O’Rourke, as RTÉ 2 pushes RTÉjr off the air whenever the Olympics or the European Championships or the World Cup is on – “anything that is more important than children’s programmes basically and the children’s programmes get bumped.” 

    RTÉ 2 also attempts the tricky task of catering for kids ranging in age from two to 15, which means that during school holidays, the preschool programmes often give way. The RTÉjr Saorview channel will mean there is a home purely for younger kids’ programming, while the older kids’ shows (styled TRTÉ) remain on RTÉ 2. 

    “By having these long schedules, RTÉ is obviously going to need more content. They can acquire programming, but the onus will be on them to support more home-produced content,” says O’Rourke. “So [DTT] is for us very much something that will drive our business over the next few years.” 

    Much of this optimism depends, however, on the frequency with which RTÉjr chooses to repeat programming blocks. Early reports about the channel suggested it would run the kids’ shows on a tight loop rather than making a major extension to its schedule of new programming. But if the broadcaster does find the resources to avoid a parent-torturing level of repeats, it will find a home animation industry with the talent to produce low-cost original content – content that can become cultural exports via industry sales events like Mipcom Junior at Cannes and New York’s Kidscreen Summit. 

    Monster has already had export success with Fluffy Gardens, which it presold to UK and Australian broadcasters. It then brought in a distribution partner, Target Entertainment, which put up the finance for sales into other territories. “Fluffy Gardens has reached 100 countries now,” says O’Rourke. Monster is close to securing international presales for Punky, talking to broadcasters in Australia and Germany, while the series is currently being market-tested in the UK by CBeebies. The initial feedback has been “very positive”, he says. 

    Punky is described as a happy girl who loves music, dancing, playing with her big brother, Con, and jumping around with her dog, Rufus. She enjoys helping around the house and trying to make Cranky, her grandmother, a little less cranky. 

    “We don’t overly emphasise that she has Down syndrome. She tells you at the start of each episode that she has it and as she’s voiced by Aimee, she sounds like she has Down syndrome,” O’Rourke says. Her family sometimes has to stop everything and pull together to help her cope with unanticipated disruptions to her daily routine. “But she gets things done as well,” he explains. 

    Though the series deals with themes of difference, diversity and the problem-solving issues specific to people with Down syndrome, O’Rourke says he hopes Punky doesn’t “get pigeonholed” as an educational programme. “We hope that it will be as mainstream as Peppa Pig or Dora.”

  • Will Sky Atlantic be a dealbreaker for UPC customers?

    January 7, 2011 @ 7:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    It sounds like an airline chasing lost business class custom, but anyone who has spotted the prominent and kind of thrilling advertising campaign for Sky Atlantic will be under no illusions. Against a night-time New York skyline, the billboards declare “let the stories begin”.

    On February 1st, the Sky Atlantic channel will launch with the pilot of HBO’s Prohibition-era gangsterfest Boardwalk Empire, starring Steve Buscemi and directed by Martin Scorsese. Other programming rights seized by the new Murdoch revenue vehicle include Treme (the New Orleans-based series by David “The Wire” Simon), the forthcoming fifth series of Mad Men and the convoluted-sounding home-commissioned six-parter Hit and Miss, produced by Paul Abbott.

    The pedigree of the line up and initial feedback on the shows that have already aired in the US suggests that Sky Atlantic will be more hit than miss – or, as the billboard tagline phrases it, the channel will “bring iconic television to Ireland”. This suggests, of course, that without the thoughtful, altruistic intervention of subscriber-seeking BSkyB, Irish viewers would never get the opportunity to lay eyes on the best drama and comedy that HBO, Showtime and AMC have to offer, rather than enduring the usual process whereby we twitch a bit, envious of our American cousins, until they eventually end up on free-to-air channels at a later than necessary hour.

    Sky Atlantic will be free to all Sky subscribers until the end of August, at which point the channel will be part of the Variety Pack, a €2 per month add-on to the basic €23 per month package. (For new sightings of Jon Hamm, Mad Men‘s Don Draper, in glorious high definition, you will need to pay €15 extra a month for the HD Pack.) That’s good news for Sky’s 600,000-plus Irish subscribers, assuming they haven’t just signed on purely to be amused by Jeff Stelling and his posse of shouty pitchside reporters.

    Access to Sky Atlantic for the 375,000 digital television subscribers to UPC Ireland, on the other hand, has yet to be confirmed. Indeed, when I contacted UPC earlier this week, its product team said this: “It is under review with the channel provider. Until discussions conclude, we’re not in a position to comment any further.”

    Aaagghhh. (You can guess which company has my custom.)  A last minute carriage deal is still possible and far from unprecedented. On the other hand, Sky could choose to delay or restrict access to other pay-TV providers in order to further differentiate its offering, in much the same way as it does with the HD versions of its sports channels. In any case, even “iconic” dramas are unlikely, by themselves, to spark an exodus from UPC to Sky, if only because drama fans looking to score cool points by watching them before everyone else will already be in the habit of downloading the shows as soon as they are broadcast in the US. Almost everyone else who cares will reluctantly wait for the box set – an attitude that doesn’t tend to work so well when it comes to live football.

    What Sky Atlantic does do, however, is give BSkyB’s pay TV products a talking point; a hook for its flashy ad campaign, which may help it grab any growth in the market before UPC’s Borg-like contact centres can get to it. UPC’s approach to adding customers – and it is still adding them – seems to largely eschew exclusive content in favour of sucking people in under their bundling deals: buy this 100 MB broadband, for which we’ve gone to all the trouble of digging holes in the ground, and take our phone and Sky-facsimile television products while you’re at it.

    I won’t leave UPC for Sky if it can’t negotiate a deal on Sky Atlantic, but that feeling of missing out on a rich cultural glut will leave me hostile – partly towards UPC, but mostly towards BSkyB for causing all the grief in the first place. Personally, I’ve always quite liked watching Mad Men on elegant, commercial-free BBC 4. Sky’s world domination plans have scuppered that.


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