TG4’s attempts to get its app on the Sky Ireland platform have been met with “years of foot-dragging”, it claimed on Thursday, saying its experience proved the need for “muscular” regulatory powers ensuring Irish language content is given prominence on pay-TV services.
Speaking at a hearing of the Oireachtas Committee on Media, TG4 director-general Alan Esslemont said the broadcaster had "very little market power" and it was "very difficult" for it to do the same deals with pay-TV platforms as English language broadcasters.
"I'm in the post for 4½ years. The first thing I said was, 'Can we get our app on Sky?' It's such an important carrier of content. Four-and-a-half years later, you can see the RTÉ app, you can see the Virgin Media app. Can you see the TG4 app? It's not that we are not able to do it. Our own app is one of the most advanced in Europe. "
Sky Ireland director of regulatory and corporate affairs Mark Carpenter, who was also attending the hearing through a videolink, said he was "a little bit surprised" by Mr Esslemont's remark as there was "a project in place" to get TG4's content on the Sky platform.
Mr Carpenter said there had been “technical issues on both sides”, but “it was happening”. Mr Esslemont replied that there were no technical issues “on TG4’s side” and asked Mr Carpenter to “look at the timescale it has taken”.
The exchange follows this week's announcement by Minister for Media Catherine Martin that the proposed Media Commission will be given powers to require pay-TV services such as Sky, Virgin Media, Eir and Vodafone to "guarantee prominence to Irish public service channels and content".
The measure, designed to ensure TG4 and RTÉ content remains “easily findable and discoverable”, will be legislated for through the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.
Mr Esslemont said "firm direction from the State" was necessary to prevent Irish language media losing relevance, while RTÉ director of strategy Rory Coveney also welcomed the Minister's move. The two broadcasters made a joint submission to the committee on the prominence issue.
But TG4 and RTÉ clashed over Saorview, the digital terrestrial television (DTT) platform operated by RTÉ subsidiary 2RN.
Mr Esslemont described Saorview as “an opportunity for Irish broadcasting that’s been missed”, while Virgin Media vice-president of legal and corporate affairs Peter McCarthy said it was “no secret” that it believed Saorview was “inefficient” and “not fit for purpose”.
Responding to a concern from Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield that "viewers are losing out" because the only HD channels on Saorview are RTÉ's, Mr McCarthy said the biggest volume of complaints Virgin Media Television received about its Six Nations rugby coverage was that it appeared in SD picture quality on Saorview.
“We have been trying to get the HD channels on Saorview, but the cost is not acceptable,” he said.
Mr Coveney said Saorview’s tariff model was governed by telecoms regulator ComReg and was “not an RTÉ choice”. DTT in the State was not the platform that had been envisaged by regulators at the outset and its delivery, rather than being “some sort of free pass”, had resulted in “enormous debt” for RTÉ.
“We would love to have more services on it, and if more services come on it, it gets cheaper for everyone,” Mr Coveney said.
“This is the reality of the model that emerged out of an aspiration for a much broader commercially based DTT service that never came to pass.”
But Mr Esslemont stressed it was important to change the “broken” model, notwithstanding wider uncertainty about the future of linear broadcasting.
“At present, the model suits RTÉ. They have got all of their services on, all their Plus One services on, their kids’ service on, their radio services on. There’s an awful lot more of public service content that is available, but it’s not on [Saorview]. So something is wrong, and it needs to be fixed.”
All four representatives agreed on the need for the Media Commission to be adequately resourced if it is to regulate both broadcasting and the content that appears on online services such as Facebook, Google-owned YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and others.
“This is an enormous undertaking to expand the regulator’s powers to all these platforms, and I just very much hope that this committee and indeed the broader parliament and Government recognise that and give this Media Commission the resources it needs to do the job correctly,” Mr Coveney said.
“Very considerable” forces will be pushing against some of this regulation, he added. “The State will need to tool up, frankly, if it seeks to implement these new standards and codes.”
Mr Esslemont said the Media Commission “could be a car crash” if not given proper funding and “the correct level of staffing and correct level of expertise”.