Ardfheiseanna on primetime: throwback TV or essential public service?

Gerry Adams grabbed the biggest audience last weekend but leader broadcasts have had their day

Gerry Adams during his address to delegates at the Sinn Féin Ardfheis last weekend. Live coverage of the political party ardfheiseanna and conferences will cost about €150,000-€200,000 in 2017, according to RTÉ. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Gerry Adams during his address to delegates at the Sinn Féin Ardfheis last weekend. Live coverage of the political party ardfheiseanna and conferences will cost about €150,000-€200,000 in 2017, according to RTÉ. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

As the mini-conference season for our main political parties ends, and the lanyards and name tags are packed up for another year, it’s time to amplify that wail from anyone (it’s not just me) who turned on RTÉ1 on Saturday evening expecting a bit of weekend-friendly, light-hearted entertainment and was faced with the Sinn Féin Ardfheis.

And the same “why is this on TV?” plaint rang out in October when the Fianna Fáil Ardfheis hogged a Saturday-night slot; on Friday, November 10th, when it was Fine Gael’s turn; and on a Saturday in early April when the Labour leader’s conference speech got its primetime run.

As textbook examples of niche TV – a 30-minute scripted speech from the leader of a political party before a hall full of party faithful beaming up in adoration – these programmes are hard to beat.

The leaders get to park themselves in expensive prime broadcast real estate, without being subject to the usual rigorous questioning from the station’s current affairs team. So it’s easy to see what’s in it for politicians – less so for viewers.

Live coverage of ardfheiseanna and party conferences consists of a couple of hours of daytime coverage and – the main event – the leader’s address scheduled for before the evening news. It is then further covered in news bulletins. According to RTÉ, live coverage is not specified under the Broadcasting Act though the station considers it “part of its remit to provide news and current affairs coverage”.

Audience figures

And it’s not accurate to say that no one is watching – although “no one” is a relative concept in the competitive world of broadcast TV. Audience figures are low.

Figures from RTÉ show that, on Saturday, an average audience of 207,500 tuned in to hear Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams – a very strong figure that’s up from 2016 (an election year) when he pulled in 186,000 and, ahead of the 191,000 viewers in 2015.

Micheál Martin leader’s address before the Fianna Fáil party faithful this year pulled in a very modest 158,000 viewers, down on 2016 (202,000) but close to the 153,000 people who tuned in in 2015.

Leo Varadkar’s first leader’s speech drew a TV audience of 189,000, a low figure for a Taoiseach; Enda Kenny’s leader’s speech to the Fine Gael family last year attracted 216,000 viewers, and 221,000 in 2015.

For Labour, Brendan Howlin’s first leader’s speech drew just 119,000 viewers, a massive fall from the 230,000 who watched Joan Burton in 2016 and even her audience of 176,000 in 2015. This year, Adams was the biggest audience attraction – not surprising as there was the “will he, won’t he?” suspense around his resignation.

A dip below 300,000 for RTÉ1 on a Saturday evening sends shivers down the spines of any Montrose programmer and, while it’s not the biggest night of the week for TV, audience figures, especially if there’s a green jersey involved, can be high. Viewership topped 1.01 million for the Ireland v Denmark Saturday world cup qualifier.

Opportunity

How important this primetime coverage is for the party leaders was highlighted this year when Fine Gael moved its leader’s address to Friday night because of Saturday’s soccer match. The party says the live TV broadcast “is important [so] that all citizens, and not just Fine Gael members, have an opportunity to listen to An Taoiseach’s speech”. It’s a lofty notion – but not reflective of the TV consumption habits of those citizens, given that more people tuned in to see Marty Whelan spin the wheel on Winning Streak on Saturday (326,000 viewers) than bothered with Varadkar’s address at the same time the previous day.

Live coverage of party conferences started on BBC in the 1950s as a new-media instrument of democracy. How else would parties reach far-flung citizens? In the 1970s, RTÉ followed suit.

However, getting the message out doesn’t depend on broadcast TV anymore. That is acknowledged by the parties themselves as they explore the broadcast potential of social media to cover their conferences. In the halls or hotel ballrooms this year, alongside the RTÉ cameras, the parties had their own camera teams, filming to stream the event on their multiple social media channels and digital channels.

By Sunday lunchtime, the video of Adams’s Saturday night speech had garnered 38,000 views on the Sinn Féin Facebook page. Indeed all the Sinn Féin ardfheis videos show impressive online numbers (Varadkar’s speech on Fine Gael’s Facebook page has 10,000 views).

Daytime sessions

And it’s not all about the leaders’ speeches. All the parties broadcast their daytime sessions on social media. A video of a day-time Sinn Féin session has already drawn 19,000 views on Facebook. On RTÉ1, viewing figures for the morning coverage of any of the party conferences struggle to hit 20,000 viewers – a startlingly low audience for a national broadcaster.

Live coverage of the political party ardfheiseanna and conferences will cost about €150,000-€200,000 in 2017, according to RTÉ. And while, for a State broadcaster with licence-fee funding and a public service remit, it should never be all about audience numbers, the money spent on servicing this niche programming is significant.

As the parties find ways to cover their own conferences through their sophisticated publicity machines, future live coverage on RTÉ, particularly on its main station and not on its many digital platforms or simply part of the news, will surely be one of those costs up for review by the cash-strapped broadcaster.

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