Saorview should not be let limp into television obscurity

Actions must be taken to improve the appeal of the Irish-owned DTT platform

Sky Ireland’s Dublin offices were blessed with a special guest yesterday, as Dora the Explorer (or rather someone dressed as Dora, on loan from Nickelodeon) dropped into Burlington Plaza to give the UK-owned home entertainment giant the thumbs up.

Sky was launching its catch-up service, a comprehensive menu of content featuring box-less “box sets”, new release movie rentals, improved keyword search function, deeper integration with mobile and tablet devices and 30-day catch-up for almost 50 channels.

We are now a long way off analogue thinking. Big screen, little screen; watching Dora to some channel controller’s schedule or pressing play whenever you have a spare half-hour in between toilet training . . . Dora’s toddler fanbase won’t see much of a practical or philosophical difference between linear and on-demand television, either now or when they grow up.

Compared to the platforms constantly being fine-tuned and upgraded by Sky and Liberty Global's UPC, Ireland's free-to-air digital terrestrial television(DTT) service Saorview is like a quaint line drawing in a world of blockbuster animations. Or as a blunt report commissioned by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has assessed the status of DTT in Ireland, "it increasingly looks and feels like a legacy platform".


In assessing the case for reopening the licensing process for a commercial DTT service (an idea it thoroughly rejects as hopeless fantasy), London-based media sector consultancy Oliver & Ohlbaum Associates (O&O) takes an extended pop at public service venture Saorview.

Unless actions are taken to improve the appeal of the platform, the 180,000 "unique homes" for which Saorview was the only means of viewing at the end of 2012 will halve to 90,000 by 2020, at which point its economics will "become questionable", O&O predicts. More viewers will abandon free-to-air services for competitively priced product bundles offered by Sky, UPC, market entrant Eircom, and potential market entrant Vodafone.

The Department of Communications, which must now tackle the policy consequences arising from this gloomy report, will already be aware of one paradox. O&O’s “pessimism” about Saorview springs in part from the fact that the service as it exists offers a limited range of channels.

But this restriction also has the effect of maintaining high audience shares for Saorview channels in Saorview-unique homes. If the popularity of Saorview declines in accordance with its projections – thanks to downward price pressures on pay-TV packages – the combined audience share of RTÉ and TG4 would fall by about four percentage points to 27 per cent, O&O suggests.

Such viewing trends mean there will not exactly be a bonanza of cash floating around for indigenous content production.

It is fair to say that the O&O report is not exactly complimentary of Ireland’s record of innovation in the television department. Quite simply, we don’t have one. Instead, we have had more than a decade of policy failure.

Now, not much more than a year after the switch-off of analogue services, O&O dares to imagine life after public service DTT. "The most cost-effective solution could be to mandate the public service broadcasters to broadcast in the clear on the Astra digital satellite and to shut both Saorview and Saorsat," it proposes, pointing to annual transmission cost savings of €11.5 million.

Of course, there would, ahem, be a “political hurdle” in requiring Saorview and Saorsat homes to incur the cost of swapping to another television platform “so soon after digital switchover”. Indeed, such a fast revision in policy would be bordering on farce.

Another counter-argument spells out why getting DTT right might have been a good idea in the first place: “The State has an interest in maintaining a distribution platform ‘of last resort’ that is not controlled by overseas interests.”

That sentence is still true if you remove the qualifying words “of last resort”. Irish broadcasters are being besieged by larger UK media organisations selling advertising in this market, and controlling the main distribution platform for television would have given the industry here a counter-balancing power.

It’s far too late for that now, but retaining some kind of Irish-influenced platform is still important. O&O’s half-hearted suggestion that RTÉ champion a “technology roadmap” to develop Saorview probably won’t quite cut it. In the age of superfast broadband, broadcasters must, at the very least, partner with the telecoms sector to win the eyeballs of preschoolers and adults alike.