Rugby partners RTÉ and Virgin should unite for more than just balls

More pragmatic alliances may soon be needed to cope with streaming competition

'Don't forget, you can see Scotland against England on Virgin Media Television, kick-off in less than 10 minutes' time," said RTÉ's Jacqui Hurley, wrapping up from the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

"Tomorrow, we get a look at the French, they're against Italy. that's live on RTÉ, " said Virgin Media Television's Joe Molloy a few hours later.

And so, dead casual, as if this has been the standard way of things for years, RTÉ and Virgin Media Television acknowledged the beginning of their beautiful friendship, before swiftly reverting to highlighting when their own coverage would next be on air.

Beautiful friendship is perhaps stretching it. The broadcasters' joint television rights deal with Six Nations Rugby, which lasts for four years and also includes the women's and U20 championships, is best seen as something between a pragmatic compromise, a useful alliance and a defensive move amid the threat of a streamer or pay-TV company throwing money at a bid.

With only deferred coverage of Ireland's Six Nations games on the Government's list of major events that must be shown on free-to-air, if a rich outsider to Irish broadcasting ever gets serious about Six Nations, it could, in theory, offer a cash bonanza high enough to make the competition owners forget about the long-term value to their sport of prime slots on free-to-air television.

Even their presence on the sidelines of the market has been enough to guarantee that there was, as VMTV managing director Paul Farrell confirmed, "inflation in the deal" agreed last May compared with the (presumably not too scabby) one Virgin (then known as TV3) did on its own in 2015 to snatch 100 per cent of the Irish rights from RTÉ for 2018-2021.

This market dynamic is not confined to rugby, or to sport. It colours almost everything RTÉ and VMTV do, or try to do.

The geographical grasp of mega-stocks in the subscription video-on-demand game like Netflix (valued at $182 billion), Disney ($258 billion), Amazon ($1.6 trillion) and Apple ($2.8 trillion) – combined with other vast entities that win portions of our finite attention, from Google owner Alphabet ($1.9 trillion) to Microsoft ($2.3 trillion) – makes the days when the biggest nemesis anyone could imagine was Sky seem quaint indeed.

Frenemy business

These colossal companies’ targeting of Irish audiences has only emphasised the challenges that RTÉ and VMTV have in common.

Of course, these frenemies are not exactly alike. State-owned RTÉ has a wide public service remit for which it receives about €197 million a year in licence fee receipts. Virgin Media Television is owned by telecoms company Virgin Media, which is in turn owned by Liberty Global. The clue is in the name: Liberty Global, controlled by American billionaire John Malone, is a multinational business and a giant relative to RTÉ.

It is, however, a mere minnow compared with the tech giants with which it, too, must compete. And, unlike the still largely unregulated video-on-demand market, VMTV operates under the conditions set out in a licence issued by the same broadcasting regulator that oversees RTÉ and TG4.

In any case, it was the partnership-chasing Virgin that approached RTÉ in January 2021 about a joint Six Nations bid, not the other way round. It didn't have to look too far for a precedent: in the UK, where the BBC and ITV have shared FIFA World Cup rights since 1966, Six Nations rights have been split between the pair since 2016 as a result of those same inflation and competitive pressures that guided the Irish deal. The championship has become too rich for any one free-to-air broadcaster's blood.

And it’s not the only thing that has. For both RTÉ and VMTV, a pooling of resources on rugby is the logical extension of their now normal habit of working with a smorgasbord of international companies on drama series and feature documentaries that they could not afford to make alone.

Can they work together again and, if so, are there still limits to how much they are interested in mutual, equal co-operation?

"Certainly, there is a willingness to have conversations," RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes said recently of future joint rights bids. "It may not be appropriate all of the time."

Farrell, meanwhile, said VMTV would “always resist situations where the market is distorted or stacked against us”, but cited Virgin’s desire for more “transparency and collaboration”.

One key question now – not just for RTÉ and Virgin, but for policymakers too – is whether they could ever distribute their product under a single brand.

BritBox venture

Again, a precedent is provided by the UK market, where ITV and the BBC united in 2019 to launch the subscription video-on-demand service BritBox, a joint venture that had been mooted a decade earlier but thwarted then by competition concerns that rapidly dated.

Yes, it’s a terrible name and it may yet fail. But BritBox, as well as serving as an archive platform for the domestic market, is underpinned by the very rational ambition to both export content and have some say in how that is done. The merits of an Irish replica should be in someone’s in-tray.

It would be nice to think that an Irish on-demand service, unburdened by the buggy quality of live channel streaming, could carve out a space for itself in an entertainment industry otherwise dictated by California. Probably a niche space, but a space nevertheless.

“Discussions will be happening and are happening about what else we can do to secure the Irish footprint in this very busy market,” said Forbes, when I asked her about this recently.

“I’d include TG4 and people like Element Pictures in this,” said Farrell. “There is an opportunity for a national streaming platform that allows us to make sure the investment is maximised in terms of content, output, talent and jobs, and not in terms of competing technical platforms that then need to talk to other platforms [to be distributed].”

So come for the rugby, stay for the unthinkable: IrelandBox, Éire Plus, IrishFlix. Just because there are no good names for this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen.