Sport is a universal language – but is it enough for TG4?

It is difficult to see how ‘Tá Gaeilge Agam’ campaign might boost viewer engagement

Well-known figures such as former astronaut Chris Hadfield are featured in TG4’s ‘Tá Gaeilge Agam’ campaign

Well-known figures such as former astronaut Chris Hadfield are featured in TG4’s ‘Tá Gaeilge Agam’ campaign

 

At an event in Galway on Wednesday, TG4 will lay out its autumn programme schedule. There’s a new chat show for Thursday nights, Seal le Dáithí presented by Dáithí Ó Sé; human interest series Finné with stories of triumph over adversity; documentaries, drama, entertainment, sports coverage and three new young female weather presenters.

RTÉ unveiled its schedule last month with a glossy meet-the-stars event, and TV3 did the same at a launch that was more a reminder that it was about to change its name to the (unwieldy) Virgin Media Television.

While the new TG4 schedule gets up and running, the Irish language broadcaster has a sure-fire audience magnet on September 16th with the final of the All-Ireland Ladies’ Football Championship. The station sponsors the championship and its Peil na mBan Beo 2017 final pulled in 300,000 viewers. This year, building on the coverage, it’ll broadcast an entertainment show live from Dublin the night before the final.

Indeed, sports coverage has proven particularly successful for TG4. Its most-watched programme between January and June this year, according to Nielsen/TAM, was the GAA Beo of April 1st when Dublin defeated Galway in the Allianz Football League final. That drew 278,600 viewers. Rugbaí Beo was at number eight and nine on the list; Munster v Connacht with 140,2000 viewers and Leinster v Connacht with 131,000.

So a niche station, TG4, has found a sub-niche in broadcasting matches the big stations weren’t particularly bothered with.

In contrast, non-sports related programmes draw significantly fewer viewers. In that same six-month period, an episode of long-running country music series Opry an Iúir was its most-watched, but attracted just 80,000 viewers. Of the top 10 programmes, four were episodes of Opry an Iúir and one of another country show, Opry Dhoire. To make it into that top 10 list, a programme had to have just 61,000 viewers (for a Val Doonican special).

So sport appears to bring in a significant number of viewers who might not usually tune in to the station. The challenge is to figure out how to keep them there. This is especially important if TG4 is to continue to build an audience outside the decreasing number of gaelteacht-area daily Irish speakers.

Advertising campaign

One strategy unlikely to work is TG4’s most recent advertising campaign. “Tá Gaeilge Agam”, devised in collaboration with Publicis advertising, ran as part of the station’s support for Bliain na Gaeilge, the Government’s Irish language initiative for 2018. The first I saw of it were posters on Dublin Bus, each one featuring a celebrity, including astronaut Chris Hadfield (he tweeted in Irish as he was passing over), rugby player Sene Naoupu and Blind Boy Boatclub.

The text said “Tá Gaeilge Agam”, there was the TG4 logo and a graphic showing how fluent – or not – each are in Irish. Bully for them you think, while idly wondering if Hadfield had ever actually tuned into TG4.

As one of those slightly cringey “Irish is cool, no really it is” campaigns, it might have made (some) sense had it been from an organisation whose sole job it is to promote the Irish language. Certainly it would have ticked corporate boxes for TG4 around supporting the language, but did it work for viewers?

Without a prompt to watch a programme, it was difficult to see how the campaign, which hoovered up a third of the station’s €500,000 marketing budget, might increase viewer engagement.

Last month, at the launch of TG4’s new four-year strategy, the Department of Communications announced it is to give an extra €985,000 to TG4 this year – small change in broadcast terms but a step in the right direction for the broadcaster as it lays out its ambitious plans. These include more than doubling its national TV audience share to 2.2 per cent by 2022 – a big ask at a time when broadcast TV is experiencing severe and sustained challenges, when digital non-linear platforms are leading to audience fragmentation.

In 2017, some 89 per cent of TG4’s income came from grant aid, up slightly on the previous year at €32.7 million; €4.07 million came from advertising and sponsorship – up 12 per cent.

If that commercial revenue is to grow – and that’s an aim of the station – viewing figures for programmes other than sports coverage will have to rise.

A counter argument could be made that TG4, as the Irish language public service broadcaster, has such an immense and important job to do to support the language and culture that it should be fully funded, and the only numbers it should be concerned with are the eyeballs – and ears – it reaches, not its commercial appeal.

To boost content and quality the station has announced a series of interesting-looking initiatives including joining with Celtic-language broadcasters and funders in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to form a Celtic Broadcasters Production Fund; and collaborating with Korean broadcaster Jeonju Television (JTV) to develop content. It is also exploring online-only content, mostly short films similar to the BBC Three model.

TG4 viewing figures have proven the old cliché about sport being a universal language, but if the broadcaster is to fulfil its own goal of moving TG4 up one place to sixth in the most-watched channels in Ireland, it’s going to have to present an engaging, entertaining schedule with a wide appeal.

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