Big media transfer: The man who swapped RTÉ for Eir
Glen Killane, MD of Eir Sport and Eir TV, on bringing Premier League, rugby and UFC to Irish viewers, and the tech companies moving into the television space
Glen Killane, managing director of Eir Sport and Eir Television, at Eir’s group headquarters in Dublin: ‘We have to understand that not everybody loves sport.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
It’s not long before the big question for anyone in the business of sport today comes up. Is UFC here to stay, or is it one great, noisy fad?
“I’m not necessarily the target demographic, but I certainly can’t ignore it. It is a modern phenomenon,” says Killane, sounding only slightly bemused. “My teenage son and his friends are all huge Conor McGregor fans. I’m a 45-year-old, middle-aged man.”
When Killane was the age his son is now, his idols were Paul McGrath and rugby player Serge Blanco, the French fullback. “I’m showing my age now. If I said that to my son, he’d go ‘huh, who?’”
But it is Killane’s relative youth, not his advancing years, that prompts people in the Irish media sector to continue tipping him as a future director general of RTÉ – a role for which he was a disappointed candidate last year.
Days before chosen appointee Dee Forbes took up her position last July, Eir Sport announced that Killane would be leaving his Montrose job as managing director of RTÉ Television and, after a period of gardening leave, decamping to the telco in Heuston South Quarter. It was the most notable of last season’s big media transfers.
“I had always felt that I wouldn’t stay in the television role forever. I didn’t think that would be good for me or for RTÉ,” says Killane. The newly-created job at Eir was “an amazing opportunity”.
His previous role as head of sport for RTÉ gave the telecoms group, the new owners of Setanta Sports – then just freshly rebranded as Eir Sport – the content and rights negotiation credibility it needed. But, more than this, Killane’s career move seemed symbolic of a media market in which old certainties had been smashed.
RTÉ previously had everything its own way when it came to sports rights. Then it had to fight it out with other broadcasters like TV3 and Setanta. Now, sport – and the wider business of “content” – is pretty much anyone’s game.
The subject of English Premier League football rights comes up. Despite some fall-off in TV audiences, when it comes to inspiring viewers to subscribe to a particular platform, exclusive live Premier League matches remain unbeatable. That’s why they have, of late, been beset by a perhaps unsustainable price inflation.
It is possible that Sky and BT Sport (through which Eir Sport can offer Irish customers 42 matches a season under the current deal) will face a powerful new opponent when the rights, for the 2019-2020 season onwards, come up again later this year.
“Will Amazon come to play on that one? Will they add a bit of spice to the equation?” Killane wonders. “I think the only question is when. And it’s not just Amazon, but some of the social media giants. The tech companies.”
He doesn’t use the business cliche “game-changer”, but this would certainly count as one. So will the tech companies end up owning everything?
“I think for some of the big international sport you may see some of those guys come in and wipe the floor with the likes of Sky. I don’t believe, though, that they will come in and take the GAA club championships or the Allianz Leagues or the SSE Airtricity League, or even the Irish soccer internationals necessarily. Irish content has a huge value and Irish sports fans want to see Irish sport. So there is a space there,” he says – for the likes of Eir, he means.
From the Premier League to UFC to the European rugby cups (for four years from 2018-2019), much of what Eir Sport offers subscribers comes through its deal with BT Sport. The relationship with the UK telco, and BT’s future strategy on sports rights, is so critical to its business, it can sometimes seem like Eir Sport’s position is, well, a little precarious.
“We have a very good relationship with BT and we have a number of years to run on our contract,” says Killane. “It will definitely be a focus for me to maintain strong friendships with the management of BT. But I think it works for them here, as well, and obviously I’d like to see it continuing.”
Some sporting authorities seem to be questioning if it is good for the long-term popularity of their sport to take all that pay-TV cash, rather than reaching a bigger audience through free-to-air alliances. Is this a risk for Eir Sport, that the market winds might change again?
“I don’t really see us as a pay-TV player, because we’re offering our services for free as part of our broadband bundle, but I don’t want to dance on the head of a pin on that one,” says Killane. There is “a balance to be struck”, he adds.
“Some sports rights are beyond the reach of the free-to-air broadcasters, because if you’re a commercial free-to-air player, it is very difficult to justify the deals on an ad sales basis. Some of the bigger deals in Ireland would be very much brand-builders and schedule-builders. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of those deals showing profit, put it that way.”
The company has also made an Eir Sport app available to higher-tariff bill-pay mobile customers, while Eir broadband subscribers can watch Eir Sport on their TV screens through Google’s Chromecast device.
The “beauty” of Eir Sport, and what makes it feasible for Eir to chase the bigger rights, says Killane, is its multitude of profit lines. Alongside its role enhancing Eir’s broadband offers, the company has income from pubs and clubs, advertising sales and paid-for subscriptions via Sky’s platform.
What’s missing? Subscription income from the second largest pay-TV platform, Virgin Media Ireland, following a dispute last year over the wholesale price. That was a blow to Eir, right?
“I think it was . . .” – he breaks off, searching for the right word – “prior to me joining.”
But would he like to see the dispute resolved?
“Of course I would,” he says straight away. “Anyone in the content space worth their salt wants their content to be seen by as many people as possible. The fact that we’re both in the same business – TV platform, broadband provider and content provider – makes these things trickier, but certainly I would love to re-engage in conversation with Virgin on it.”
They’re not “growling at each other over dinner tables”, he clarifies. “We get on fine. But the opportunity hasn’t presented itself to get back to talking turkey.”
There were no winners in the dispute – least of all, viewers – but perhaps Eir was a bigger loser than Virgin? “I don’t think this has been good for them,” he says. “And it’s not good for us either that Eir Sport isn’t on Virgin. I’d like to see us back on Virgin. But it has to be a fair deal.”
Next up on Eir is the Women’s Rugby World Cup, which takes place in Dublin and Belfast from August 9th. Eir acquired the television rights as part of its deal for the, ahem, men’s event in 2019 and it then sub-licensed the Irish games and the final to RTÉ. Killane says Eir Sport will show every game in the tournament and will be proud to do so.
“We have seen from some of the viewing figures on other channels, particularly RTÉ, that there is an interest in women’s rugby and women’s sport in general, and we’re fully behind it,” he says. “It’s an event that’s growing and I think this tournament will take it another step forward. We have a great team and they have a good shot at winning it on home soil.”
Although Killane says he wants “as many people as possible to watch the output we have”, Eir is not “beholden to the tyranny” of audience ratings. What he wants is brand recognition, to “get noticed”, and that’s harder to achieve than it was at RTÉ. One event that did the trick was Eir’s showing of Ireland’s victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last November. “We completely lucked out with the result,” he admits.
Eir might also sub-licence Ireland’s matches in the 2019 Rugby World Cup – under Government regulations, they must be free-to-air – but, then again, it might not. “There may be other options,” he teases. “We may come up with our own solution.”
Killane grew up in Malahide and, after attending CUS on Leeson Street, he studied English at Trinity in the early 1990s, followed by a journalism masters at Dublin City University.
He was promoted by Tim O’Connor, the late former head of RTÉ Sport, to editor of rugby and ended up forming the “McGurk, Hook and Pope thing”. After a stint at ITV, he was back at RTÉ as executive producer in sport, and then a young head of sport from 2004, before making the jump to oversee RTÉ Television from 2010.
Killane’s cross-industry experience means his views on the wider media sector are regularly sought. At a recent forum on public service broadcasting, he found himself “sitting at a table with Eamon Ryan and saying we’re trying to keep too many people happy all the time”. He describes it as a classic political malaise: “Don’t make a decision, just give everybody bits of money, even though what works for content is scale.”
Would Eir ever produce non-sport content then?
“That’s something I discussed with the CEO when I was coming in. I don’t think we’re there yet. We have a bit of work to do before we get into that space.”
But he’s not ruling it out: “Sport is a focus, obviously, and it is doing very, very well for the business, but we have to understand that not everybody loves sport.”
In an interview with The Irish Times in 2005, he said Setanta was a business “about making money”, while RTÉ, although run under corporate governance, was “not in the business of making money”. So is there a pressure that comes with being in a company like Eir?
“It’s a very different environment,” he says. His role “must never be divorced from the rest of the business” – Eir Sport is “the glue that binds our network strengths together”, turning a “transactional decision” on the part of broadband-seeking consumers into “more of an emotional one”.
“Content does that, it has that effect on people. It’s quite ephemeral, it’s not always possible to pin down.”
As big a task as it is for Killane to “crack this” and deliver for Eir’s shareholders, it must be nice for him, all the same, to take a breather from the particular kind of public scrutiny he was under as a senior executive at RTÉ. “Yeah. For sure,” he says, laughing. “Anonymity is great!”