Channelling enthusiasm

Fri, Aug 20, 2010, 01:00

THE FRIDAY INTERVIEW:David McRedmond, chief executive, TV3

STANDING IN the studio control room of TV3, chief executive David McRedmond beams like a father proud of a newly born baby as he watches Mrs Odlum on screen work her magic with some baking powder on Ireland AM.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” he says with an enthusiastic smile.

I nod politely in agreement. Truth be told, it’s not really my cup of tea, although, being (just about) under 44, I’m a key demographic for the station.

After a breezy tour of its Ballymount studios, we retire upstairs to his office for rasher sandwiches and mugs of tea (in branded TV3 cups of course), where he reminds me of the impressive audience gains the station has made in recent times.

“Our audience share is up 5 per cent, up to the beginning of June, and up 2.5 per cent when the World Cup is factored in,” he says. “The audience performance has been superb.”

According to McRedmond, in October and November of last year, TV3 was the most watched channel in Ireland by adults under 44. “It was driven by the Apprentice and X-Factor,” he says.

Often mocked for its cheesy output, TV3 is not to be taken lightly. More Irish people tune in to it than to UTV and BBC combined, and it has overtaken RTÉ 2 to become the second most watched channel here after RTÉ 1.

McRedmond accepts that TV3 is unlikely to overtake RTÉ 1, given the latter’s appeal to viewers of more mature years.

“We’re not saying we will be the largest channel in the next three years. But we believe we can become the biggest channel for adults under 44 if we do our job right.”

McRedmond is confident TV3’s autumn schedule, unveiled to the media at a lunchtime bash yesterday, can help achieve this goal.

It’s a mix of some old reliables – Coronation Street, the Apprenticeand Tonight with Vincent Browne– and a raft of new shows, including Irish versions of Come Dine With Me, Take Me Outand Driving me Crazy.

There’s also a commitment to increase Irish programming output to 40 per cent – double the regulatory requirement.

“We have set our target over the next three years to get that figure over 50 per cent,” he adds.

Such is TV3’s new-found confidence that McRedmond gave the green light to an “on-air” launch of the schedule in Galway’s G Hotel this morning.

“I thought, why don’t we launch it to our viewers?” he said on Wednesday. “I’m really thrilled that we’re doing it.”

It’s not all rosy in the Ireland AM garden, of course. Like all Irish media companies, TV3 has felt the full force of the recession. Its profits slumped from €22 million at peak to just €2 million last year while 30 staff were made redundant, some compulsorily, and everyone took a pay cut.

“From peak to trough, the Irish television advertising market fell by about 40 per cent,” he explains. “Ours fell by 20 per cent. We had to work incredibly hard to make sure we kept our head above water.”

McRedmond compliments the commercial side of the house, led by Pat Kiely, for keeping the kitty topped up.

But not all revenue-generating projects worked out successfully. The sponsorship of Vincent Browne’s show by Bank of Scotland (Ireland) was ruled offside by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). And the station axed Play TV, the late night gameshow aped from an ITV format, due to the weight of negative sentiment it generated over the cost of playing and its obscure answers.

“I make no apologies around it,” McRedmond insists. “But there were things that should have been done better.”

So why axe it? “Because it was coming under fire from the regulator and there was a lot of negative press, and viewing was falling off as a result. It wasn’t worth it.

“But you know what? It was an essential part of getting us through the recession.”

Fair enough.

McRedmond is beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Television, he argues, was the first medium to feel the effects of the recession, but it has also been the first to see a turn.

“And it has started to come back,” he says. TV3’s advertising revenues rose by 7 per cent in the first six months of 2010. McRedmond has pencilled in a 5-6 per cent rise for the year as a whole.

“It’s been quiet in August, but the [advertising] agencies are talking a good game for the autumn. But it’s the early stages of a recovery, and I wouldn’t like to call it definitively just yet.”

Other positives for TV3 are that 3e – the digital station formerly known as Channel 6 that it acquired in 2008 – moved into the black for the first time in the second half of this year. Its website – launched with gusto in 2008 – is also profitable.

In addition, McRedmond is negotiating to secure a new site close to Ballymount where he will build a €3 million, state-of-the-art high definition studio. This is a by-product of a €15 million refinancing in June by its parent, British private equity group Doughty Hanson.

“We need to make sure that the technology is kept up to speed with what the people are doing,” he says.

TV3 is no longer merely a broadcaster but a “producer of content”, McRedmond states. “That’s the vital shift that broadcasters have to make.”

An independent production unit has been set up to make up to 150 hours of programming a year. Some of this will be sold abroad. The process has already started. “We’ve sold Ireland’s Crime Capitals and there’s interest in Animal AE. That’s the really exciting piece for us.”

McRedmond is a media nut, and was one long before he decamped to Ballymount in late 2006. With “not a sniff of a job” in Ireland on graduating from UCD in 1986 with an MA in History, he headed to London with notions of becoming a journalist with the Times newspaper. Instead, he got a job on the shop floor of bookseller Waterstone’s, then a small independent trying to find its feet.

He was interviewed by founder and entrepreneur Tim Waterstone. “He’s been a great friend and an inspirational figure,” McRedmond says. “He’s invited me to his book launch next month.”

McRedmond worked his way up to become a buyer, and a manager. “Then they sent me to the US to open Waterstone’s there.”

He subsequently returned to Britain and became operations director before WH Smith bought the business. They then sold it on and, to McRedmond’s surprise, asked him to stay on and run their travel retail business – basically, their outlets in airports and train stations.

“It was very exciting and very powerful mass-market selling.”

He moved back to the US with WH Smith before getting a call about Eircom.

“I was sitting in my office in Atlanta and got a phone call from a headhunter saying ‘Do you want to come back and work for Eircom’?” he recounts.

“I remember thinking who’s Eircom?” he says, eyebrow arched.

He joined Eircom in January 2000, first running its non-core assets, and then being the company’s point man with the regulator and competitors.

“That opened me up to the exciting world of regulation,” he recalls. “I can’t pretend it was a lot of fun. Eircom was a tough, tough environment.”

Critics of Eircom would argue that it was plundered for “super profits” by a variety of private owners, who starved it of investment and loaded it with debt.

McRedmond was one of a clatter of executives who made millions along the way. How does he look back on his time with Eircom?

“There were a lot of good things done,” he says. “The piece that was always missing was a really constructive dialogue with government.”

Having played the gamekeeper role with Eircom, does McRedmond now consider himself a poacher with TV3?

“There’s an element to that,” he says with a grin. “I can see some of their [RTÉ] reactions wouldn’t be dissimilar to reactions I might have had in Eircom.”

This is a veiled reference to RTÉ opposing an increase in the minutes of advertising that TV3 can carry each hour. It was recently raised by the BAI from 10 to 12 minutes – the EU limit.

“We’re not going to flood the market with ads; we’ll use it to put investment back into programming,” he says.

RTÉ dual funding model – licence fee and advertising revenues – has long been a bugbear with TV3. McRedmond would like to see RTÉ 1 funded by the licence fee alone and RTÉ 2 funded by advertising. But he hasn’t made much headway with the argument.

Ironically, his name has been linked with the role of RTÉ director general, which is being vacated by Cathal Goan.

Will he be applying?

“No,” he says firmly. “I’m determined that I will get value here for shareholders and make a return for the bank. I’m only part of the way through that job.”

He expects that to take “another three or four years”.

We close with TV3’s controversial decision to run the story of Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan’s cancer on St Stephen’s Day. There was a huge public and media backlash against TV3 but, in March, the BAI found that it was fair, accurate and in the public interest, in response to a record number of complaints.

Does he regret that decision now? “Looking back is always a slightly difficult exercise . . . what happened happened,” he says.

But would he do it differently if presented with a similar story now? “I couldn’t possibly answer that question,” he insists politely. “We made a call . . . I don’t think anyone can make a judgment on whether it was right or wrong. There’s no point looking back. You can’t wipe out what you’ve done. “In the words of Brian Lenihan, you move on.”

On The Record

Name: David McRedmond

Job: TV3 chief executive

Why in the News?TV3 launched its autumn schedule this week

Age: 48

Lives: Glenageary

Family: Married, three children

Background: A native of Dublin, he spent most of his career in the UK and the US, returning to Ireland in 2000. Prior to his appointment in TV3, he was the group commercial director of Eircom plc. With the flotation of eircom in 2004 he was appointed to the plc board. He was also Chairman of Golden Pages Ltd, prior to its sale by eircom, and chairman of eircom Phonewatch Ltd.

Before Eircom, he was in retailing businesses in the UK and US, including such roles as operations director of Waterstone’s when the chain grew to become the largest specialist bookseller in Europe; and managing director of WH Smith Travel Retail .

Hobbies: Sea swimming all year round, rugby and literature

Something we might expect: “My father and my sister both worked in RTÉ. My father (Louis) was instrumental in getting the licence for RTÉ to launch a second TV channel, RTÉ 2.”

Something that might surprise: “In my socialist youth, my wife and I honeymooned in Cuba on a bookseller’s salary.”