2015: The media year in takeovers, own goals and the scramble for an audience

Competition was as fierce as ever, and the pressure will still be on for most in 2016

 

Another year in the triumphs and travails of the media and there is one puzzle with the power to fox daily.

Not why is every YouTube celebrity someone you would cross the road to avoid, not why do so many online headlines begin with the word “this”, but how is everyone still in business?

Ireland is tiny, most people don’t want to pay for digital content, adblockers are a pesky scourge and all the kids are on Spotify. This Journalist Wonders How Much Longer The Situation Can Go On.

In television, competition was fiercer than ever, as UTV Ireland deprived TV3 of Coronation Street and Emmerdale, but otherwise found it hard to win friends. Wee Daniel and jungle-bound celebrities did their bit for ratings later in the year, but this came after four profit warnings.

Still, despite the excitement of the Rugby World Cup, TV3 had to battle hard in a year as melodramatic as an episode of Red Rock. The long-running storyline that was its inevitable sale reached a climax in July when Liberty Global’s UPC Ireland (Virgin Media Ireland as it is now) picked it up for a price tag of up to €87 million – a third of what private equity firm Doughty Hanson had paid for it in 2006.

Indeed, both TV3 and UTV Ireland enter 2016 as part of bigger media empires. ITV plc’s acquisition of both UTV channels is yet to be approved by regulators, but both it and the newly rebranded Eir’s purchase of Setanta Sports should get the all-clear.

New world order

RTÉ will have to adjust to this new world order, and its loss of Six Nations rights to TV3 from 2018 may be a harbinger of pressures to come. It’s just one challenge for the next RTÉ director-general to enjoy – another is the critical licence fee issue that fell into a pre-election paralysis.

Personality wise, it was out with the old, in with the new – well, almost. The year began with UTV Ireland bringing us Out with the Old, In With the U, a documentary in which Pat Kenny went round the country in a quilted jacket. Otherwise it was very much a case of out with the old, in with the even more familiar.

RTÉ had finished 2014 by poaching Ray D’Arcy with the promise of a TV chat show, and D’Arcy wasn’t lying when he warned it would be “not like anything you’ve ever seen before, because you’ve never seen me do a chat show before”.

On radio, he was stuck in what had been Derek Mooney’s afternoon slot on Radio 1 where, so far, his audience gain (up 9,000 to 199,000 listeners) has been modest in light of the rumoured size of the pay cheque. But given Kenny’s waning listenership, it is Communicorp’s Newstalk that looks the more profligate.

By the end of the year, Newstalk had gained a chief executive and Today FM had lost theirs. Could a shake-up at Denis O’Brien’s two national radio stations be on the cards for 2016? It feels like it might be.

Notwithstanding the “getting it from all sides” criticism of its coverage of water charges debate, it was a good year on the current affairs side for RTÉ, with the polished launch of Claire Byrne Live, Seán O’Rourke’s strong ratings and Miriam O’Callaghan proving the old adage that radio is the most intimate of mediums with her Leo Varadkar scoop.

In May, the marriage referendum was the focus of all attention. It was the rainbow after the storm. Young people came #hometovote. Would they be #hometobuyanewspapertoo?

Alas, print circulations continued a decline that dates back to 2007. There were no big collapses, but the position of the Irish Examiner remains less than assured given the extent to which it is being supported by Landmark Media’s lenders, while Independent News & Media shut down a printing press in Belfast.

All the British papers are still here, and indeed Rupert Murdoch’s News UK technically expanded by launching a daily digital edition, known as the “Ireland” edition of the Times and not the Irish edition (as this phrase was the subject of a trademark legal action taken by The Irish Times). It ended the year by bundling a subscription offer with an iPad mini.

Meanwhile, two online-only groups, Journal Media and Maximum Media, were in hiring mode as they chased the scale needed to make money from a business model based on digital display and the blurred-lines world of native advertising.

Daft ads and disasters

Speaking of advertising, almost every financial institution in the country ran daft television ads. AIB was “backing brave”, then it was “backing doing”, Bank of Ireland gave us next-door neighbours Steve and Rachel, who were unfashionable and over-talkative, whereas our Bank of Ireland customer hero was bearded and cool.

But a special prize must go to the baby-cradling woman who beams through a hospital bed spiel about Ulster Bank’s wide range of fixed rate options as she’s handed the other twin.

Elsewhere, Irish Water followed up 2014’s public relations faffs by investing in an advertising campaign that explained the various processes and treatments that takes water “from cloud to glass” by means of a diagram. “Pay up,” was the subtext.

Paddy Power once again fell the wrong side of the regulatory and good-taste line by sending a lorry to Calais with a massive poster reading “immigrants, jump in the back! . . . but only if you’re good at sport”, which was about the hypocrisy of anti-immigration rhetoric but was still just awful.

For public relations disasters, the UK general election gave us Ed Miliband’s “Ed Stone”, an 8 ft 6in slab of manifesto promises unveiled at a car park ceremony so cheesy it had Miliband’s most ardent supporters cringing into their lapels.

On this own-goal note, the Ed Miliband PR Fail award goes to the Web Summit’s Paddy Cosgrave, who had numerous people agreeing with the substance of his complaint – that Ireland’s bureaucratic wheels can be inefficient and its politicians opportunistic – but still concluding “right, off to Lisbon you go then”.

As Enda Kenny smirked, we wish them well, and to everyone else, good luck.

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