Could an ‘Ireland TV Player’ be part of the Irish media’s future?

Call for industry to unite for ‘local powerhouse’ is logical, but place no bets on it

‘If you want to compete with global powerhouses, you must develop a local powerhouse to take them on.”

It's a common-sense conclusion in Core Media's Outlook 2018, a report that assesses the at times uncertain financial prospects of each unvarnished corner of the Irish media. Core could almost have been talking about any medium, but on this occasion its remark was directed at television broadcasters. "We call on Irish broadcasters to come together and offer one Ireland TV Player," wrote Core, Ireland's largest advertising buyer.

The rationale for the call is written on the walls, the smartphone screens and the smart TV menus of Irish viewers. For many, nothing much will have changed in how they consume television over the past decade: it’s a case of Keep Calm and Carry On Hogging the Remote. But for a significant portion of younger viewers in particular, the architecture of television has edged away from linear channels in the direction of neat, searchable, intuitive apps.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sky's Now TV and Google's YouTube are only the highest profile of the infinite on-demand distractions already in existence. Facebook and Apple reportedly plan to pour billion-plus annual sums into content, while sporting bodies are increasingly keen on reserving action for their own subscription services, rather than auctioning it all off. Some day (with any luck), the BBC might even relaunch the global version of the iPlayer.


Industry collaboration

In this crowded business, industry collaboration will be the most viable path forward, Core suggests.

“Dividing Irish content amongst three or four apps will not be a successful model,” it plainly states, recommending with what can only be described as optimism that Irish broadcasters come together and develop a single, free player with both live streaming and rich archives.

For the media agencies that buy advertising on behalf of their clients, there is always some merit in the added scale and convenience that cross-industry co-operation brings. At a recent radio industry conference in Dublin, agencies appealed to the spectrum of radio groups present to unite further and sell advertising in a more cohesive, standardised manner. Ireland’s print industry, it was suggested, should have done the same long ago.

If the will existed "to put aside years of competing for media budgets", an Ireland TV Player would help keep Irish television strong, according to Core

Putting aside long-held rivalries in the name of mutual survival hasn’t exactly been a natural instinct in the Irish media, pockets of which almost seem to cherish the fomenting of tedious tit-for-tats, and when these go public they may be accompanied by the bonus delusion that anyone outside the industry cares. What is genuinely in the interest of Irish viewers is that Irish television production is put on as solid a footing as possible at a time when the sheer volume of international content threatens to swamp it.

A big part of the problem for the sector is scraping together the means to finance a critical mass of, well, our own culture. The other part, as Core rightly points out, is having the correct distribution for the age we live in. Advertisers and agencies are not the only ones who respond to scale and convenience. Audiences’ eyes will be caught by any service that offers an accessible cache of content that is relevant to them.

RTÉ Player

In conversation with RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes last month, the now familiar topic of how Ireland's original national broadcaster might co-exist with the Netflixes of this world was never far away. One of RTÉ's digital ambitions is to lure the people who never watch RTÉ on linear channels to the online-only content housed on the RTÉ Player – an upgraded version of the Player, in the pipeline for some time, is expected to arrive at some point. But pursuit of an Ireland TV Player was not a priority at this difficult time, Forbes indicated.

“That’s been talked about a little bit. I think it is something we could work towards. To be honest, I think we have bigger issues at play, and the bigger issues for me are just the viability of the business,” she said, going on to suggest that such a service might be more of a runner if there was greater Government clarity on RTÉ’s future funding.

At the soon-to-rebrand TV3 Group, managing director Pat Kiely has spoken in general of his desire for more jointly beneficial partnerships between RTÉ and TV3, though not one of this kind. TV3, owned by Virgin Media, which is itself part of the European cable giant Liberty Global, has said it is exploring new distribution routes for its content. Ultimately, it may be these parent company connections that provide it with its more likely route to viewers in the "platinum age of video".

If the will existed “to put aside years of competing for media budgets”, an Ireland TV Player would help keep Irish television strong, according to Core. It is hard to disagree. But projects of this type demand energy, time and expense as well as the will to do them. The best opportunity to get stuck into building a “local powerhouse” may already have passed.