RTÉ issues proclamation on Irish drama

‘Rebellion’ could return for second run in 2018 as part of plan to step up production

Period drama Rebellion may return to RTÉ screens for a second and third series as part of plans by the broadcaster to extend the number of hours of drama it shows each year.

RTÉ will use international co-production deals to increase its drama output (excluding soap opera Fair City) to 28 hours a year by 2019, says managing director of television Glen Killane.

The broadcaster showed just 8½ hours of home-produced drama in 2015 across two series, Charlie and Clean Break.

RTÉ plans to work with a number of co-production partners, including the BBC and Nordvision, a group of public broadcasters in Nordic countries, to build up its drama slate.

It will also bump up its own funding of the genre by up to €2.5 million per year.

“RTÉ is too small to make drama on that scale alone,” says Killane. “But we are nailing our colours to the mast and saying drama is a 100 per cent priority for us. And if we can get to 28 hours a year, that would be a huge fillip for the independent sector.”

Rebellion, which debuted on Sunday night to a decent critical reception and an average live viewership of 619,000, was commissioned as a five-part series to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. The War of Independence and Civil War will be the backdrop for the drama if it returns.

International broadcasters

A decision on whether to commission it for another series of five or six episodes will be taken shortly and the second run, if it goes ahead, will be broadcast in 2018.

The advantage of making more than one series is that the more episodes of a drama there are, the more saleable it becomes to international broadcasters.

In recent years, the cost of making post-watershed drama has been prohibitively high for RTÉ, which has been in budget-cutting mode since the collapse in television advertising revenues.

Per-episode costs can range from €300,000 (which would be relatively cheap) to several million.

Internationally, a series such as HBO's Game of Thrones has an average per-episode cost well above €5 million, while Rebellion's per-episode cost is understood to be about €1.4 million.

As a period piece, it was more expensive to make than recent RTÉ dramas.

Rebellion is produced for RTÉ by UK company Zodiak Media and Zodiak's subsidiary, Touchpaper Television. The project was conceived in 2012, Killane says, with several pitches from different production companies considered. Written by Colin Teevan, the commissioned drama shows the lives of fictional characters as they live through historical events.

Initially, there was a shortfall on the required budget and Zodiak agreed to deficit-finance the project, but a deal with Robert Redford’s SundanceTV, which has come on board as a co-production partner, means Zodiak has recouped its investment.

Vote of confidence

This type of deal “could be a game-changer for us”, according to Killane, who describes SundanceTV’s backing of the series as “a real vote of confidence” in both RTÉ and Zodiak. RTÉ does not have to own the intellectual property, he says, “it just has to be part of that environment”.

RTÉ currently has an interest in several new dramas in development, but has not announced details of them as some may not go ahead.

It will show BBC Northern Ireland's five-part pre-watershed drama My Mother and Other Strangers, written by Barry Devlin, which is set on the shores of Lough Neagh in Co Tyrone during the second World War. Made with funding from Northern Ireland Screen, it will air next autumn.

However, it will be evolution, not revolution for RTÉ’s drama output: 2016 will be another lean year, with most of what is in development now set to reach screens in 2017 and beyond.

This year is set to be expensive for RTÉ in other ways, with the broader 1916 commemorations, the general election, Euro 2016 and the Olympics all set to burn big holes in its budget – the broadcaster has even had to put together a package of its sports rights to sell to rivals under sub-licensing deals in order to balance the books.

Public media

The upside for RTÉ is it will have a series of opportunities to promote what a licence fee-supported media organisation can do. “I think 2016 will be a great shop window for what public media is about,” says Killane.

Part of the plan to increase the number of hours of drama is to “get drama back on RTÉ 2”, he says. Although it does have some scripted comedy, drama on the channel – typically aimed at younger viewers – was one of the first casualties when the recession hit.

The low number of dramas that make it to air means there are high stakes attached to the commissioning process. Four-part series Clean Break, a crime drama set in Wexford, was a relative flop.

“Yes, I was disappointed, but I would never fault people for trying things out. It’s not always about ratings,” Killane says.

As for the in-house produced Fair City, RTÉ has looked at the possibility of giving it to an independent producer to make. "We have looked at everything over the last five years, but the numbers didn't add up," he says. "It doesn't make any sense for us to farm it out now."

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics