The show goes on as RTÉ looks to drama for future earnings


MEDIA & MARKETING:THERE HAS BEEN no shortage of drama at RTÉ over the past 12 months – tragically, much of it has taken place off screen. But though slimmer budgets have put pressure on its output, RTÉ drama is looking to the future – 2015 and beyond, to be precise.

Deficit or no deficit, the show must go on, and development times for an original, prime-time RTÉ drama are long enough to require commissioning editor of drama Jane Gogan to look three years ahead. This week, her department issued a commissioning brief to producers who fancy their chances making “an enticing range of drama events, series and serials” that will be scheduled on RTÉ One, post-watershed, from 2015 onwards.

The brief is open: “RTÉ continues to encourage producers to work with writers who can develop complex and intriguing stories that tell a truth about our society.”

The dramas don’t have to be set in the present and they can be adaptations rather than original fare, but they do need to have “a contemporaneous relevance”, the brief states.

“You really need to keep it as broad as possible because you want someone to come in with something you haven’t thought of yourself,” says Gogan.

Certain genres are still more likely to be commissioned than others. Science fiction, for example, falls into the kind of high-concept territory that is risky for a broadcaster that needs to cater for a mass audience, rather than a niche demographic. Crime, on the other hand, will probably remain in vogue, as not only does it have a ratings track record, it also tends to appeal in the increasingly competitive, globalised co-production market.

Speaking of which, the “Europudding” phenomenon of awkwardly meshed international drama has now been replaced by something altogether more sophisticated.

Since The Killing, everyone now wants to work with the Danish (who co-produced the mystery thriller with Germany’s ZDF Enterprises) because as well as making a splash in overseas markets, it was sold as a format to US network AMC.

Ireland was once ahead of the game in respect of Danish co-productions, with the company Subotica producing the thriller Proof for RTÉ and Denmark’s TV2 way back in 2004.

These days, Gogan notes that RTÉ has “a very good relationship” with both the BBC and ITV. Love/Hate has an overseas sales agent in the form of ITV Global. The remake rights for the Dublin gangland drama have been optioned in the US, though Gogan cautions that it doesn’t necessarily mean an American version will be made.

Other revenue opportunities should come courtesy of on-demand television. So far RTÉ content is only available on UPC On-Demand via RTÉ Player, but the broadcaster has indicated that it wants to launch “box sets” of on-demand content via the service, while Netflix may also act as a distribution channel. RTÉ Digital has set up a sub-division - Strategic Platforms, Distributions and Partnerships - to maximise such revenues.

Multiple sales and distribution options should make it easier to justify production expenses that are inevitably high compared to other genres. Dramas, as Gogan’s commissioning brief states, are “expected to be a big event” for its schedule. It can’t look cheap: slashing budgets too deeply would risk affecting quality in a way that jeopardises overseas sales as well as domestic ratings. Cutting back on the number of episodes in a series is not usually a solution either, as it makes recurring series less sellable abroad.

At the same time, RTÉ Drama’s new commissioning brief, uploaded to its website on Monday, betrays hints of the financial pressures that are troubling the broadcaster.

Costs-per-hour, which in the past typically ranged from €500,000 to €1 million, will be “dictated by the demands of the format and content”, it states, “while bearing in mind that there is a continuing need to bring costs down”. Budgets of €1 million per hour already look historical with RTÉ’s annual spend on drama having fallen to about €20 million, down from €29 million in 2010.

Output hasn’t dropped by the same percentage, according to Gogan, because it has implemented cuts in production costs – she cites a 22 per cent drop in the cost of producing Fair City. “Priorities”, meanwhile, necessitate that the new commissioning brief concentrates on RTÉ One – the future for drama on RTÉ Two seems a lot bleaker.

Over the past year, the slate of home-produced drama did look light, and an unflattering comparison with the previous year – when it boasted a six-part series of “bucolic” ITV co-produced crime drama Single-Handed and one-off BBC co-production When Harvey Met Bob – didn’t help.

The pipeline is now thickening again, with BBC-led co-production The Fall joining the returning Love/Hate and Raw, and Amber, a four-parter about a missing girl, likely to be shown in the spring. Amber, part-funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, poses an interesting case study as it was made by Screenworks, a company that gained its industry foothold by making webisodes for the first year of RTÉ’s Storyland competition.

But the year ahead will bring more competition for eyeballs too, with the arrival of TV3’s new six-part drama, also BAI part-funded, which has the working title Tailor’s Hill. It is now filming in Galway, where TV3 executives have been busy adding their notes to the scripts.

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