‘Red Rock’ is back on air, but the big cliffhanger is: for how long?

The TV3 drama has an unusual history and an uncertain future

Between “Red Rock” and a hard place: Patricia Hennessy (Cathy Belton) finds herself embroiled with a powerful man with a dark secret in the TV3 drama

Between “Red Rock” and a hard place: Patricia Hennessy (Cathy Belton) finds herself embroiled with a powerful man with a dark secret in the TV3 drama

 

Red Rock, a show that has had its share of offscreen twists and turns, was back on TV3 last night for the first time since May and the first time since it went on an indefinite production hiatus last August. For a drama, seven months is not a long time to be off air. But for Red Rock, originally conceived as a soap opera, the unexpectedly long gap is a saga in itself.

In a globalised television industry that thrives on large budgets and big audiences – larger budgets and bigger audiences than Ireland alone can deliver – the case of Red Rock exemplifies the challenges to which the Irish television industry must shape up.

To recap: Red Rock debuted in January 2015 as a twice-weekly soap with a distinctive harmonica-led theme tune, filling two of the schedule holes left by the departure (temporary, as it turned out) of Coronation Street and Emmerdale to UTV Ireland.

The Garda-themed Red Rock was a surprise arrival: new soaps are notoriously hard to get off the ground. A little rough round the edges, as most soaps are by design, the talent of the cast and creative energy of the production team behind it (Element Pictures and a company run by EastEnders’ boss John Yorke) carried Red Rock to some critical acclaim and a modest but loyal audience.

Ifta awards

Tackling storylines such as grooming, Garda corruption, gang violence and drug addiction, it wove several murders between the lighter moments and picked up Ifta awards for its trouble. It was acquired by both Amazon Prime and the BBC, which aired it in a summer lunchtime slot, allowing TV3 to hail it as Ireland’s most successful television export.

But by autumn 2016, TV3 – then owned by Liberty Global subsidiary Virgin Media and in the process of buying UTV Ireland – didn’t need Red Rock to do the job it had originally asked of the show.

The format changed from two breezy 22-minute episodes to a single, “darker”, harmonica-free, 44-minute episode a week. Ratings failed to gain momentum, and the show took an unplanned “mid-season break” in November 2016 while its future was debated, meaning it was noticeably still Christmas in the fictional Dublin suburb of Red Rock last spring.

Then, last August, the crew and an “extremely disappointed” cast were informed that the drama would cease production for the time being and the filmed episodes due to start their run last autumn would not be broadcast until 2018. It was a move that saved TV3 money and gave it breathing space while it worked out whether it wanted to make more – a dilemma complicated by the fact that it would soon be obliged to vacate its set at an old cigarette factory site, as its lease was coming to an end.

Murky future

That’s the catch-up. The future is as murky as the morals in Red Rock Garda station: TV3 says no decision has been taken about whether more episodes will be made once the batch in the can expires.

Positive indicators include the signing of Chilean wine brand Casillero del Diablo as sponsor and digital product placement partner, as well as the suggestion from TV3 that it’s not going to simply walk away from an €11 million investment. The show has also benefited from the section 481 film and television tax credit and been allocated a total of €2.35 million in four tranches of licence-fee funding through the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, including the recent award of €300,000 for a 30-episode fourth series. The application for this funding would have been made before the show was put on hiatus.

Constructing a new set, however, would require fresh investment for a show that TV3 may no longer believe is the right fit for the soon-to-be-rebranded channel, now operating firmly within the Virgin “family”. TV3, admitting that it would have liked the audience figures to have been higher, has pointed to its desire to build a wider drama slate and stressed its need to “cut its cloth” to suit the market.

Big players

It’s a market increasingly dominated by big players. What the Red Rock cliffhanger proves is that the economics of selling a show overseas after it has been made don’t add up: rights deals with the likes of Amazon and the BBC do not guarantee survival. The answer for Irish broadcasters is to pursue relentlessly international co-production and distribution deals much earlier in the process – which TV3 can do through its Virgin connections – so that they aren’t the ones absorbing all of the financial risk.

Some success should lie down this path. But it’s hard not to agree with Irish Equity president Padraig Murray, who in reacting to news of Red Rock’s hiatus called on the Government to “take a serious look” at how it promotes and develops indigenous television production.

Indeed, under the dubiously all-encompassing Creative Ireland strategy, the Government has expressed a vague wish for Ireland to become a “global hub” for television drama. It would be more fantasy than soap to think this will happen all by itself.