TV3’s Pat Kiely: ‘We have something up our sleeve’
Under owners Virgin Media, the media group has invested in news and entertainment, but it still has to ‘cut its cloth’
Pat Kiely: “If this market doesn’t encourage and promote competition, and if the Government feels that supporting a dominant player is the way broadcasting flaws in Ireland will be sorted, then we have a problem.” Photograph: Dave Meehan
“We read recently they made this loss of €19.7 million last year, but in January, they put out a press release saying they had 20 of the top 20 television shows last year,” he says, running his finger over the list.
“Now on one level I can’t connect those two positions. On another level, I can, because one is the reason for the other. If I was allowed to go over budget by €19 million, I think my performance would be a lot better in terms of audience reach and top shows than what it is.”
The decision to put drama Red Rock into a production hiatus is a case in point: TV3 has always “cut its cloth”, he says – it hasn’t had a choice.
This season’s cloth is slightly more luxurious than its previous wardrobes, but it’s all relative. Under “great new owners” Virgin Media Ireland, which is in turn owned by John Malone’s cable group Liberty Global, TV3 has secured an investment of hazy magnitude for both infrastructure and content, but its total content budget, says Kiely, is still less than what RTÉ spends on sport (which in 2016 was €48 million).
“We can’t spend money on content for content’s sake,” he says. While there is “a window of time” to do so, he has “an obligation” to make a return on Virgin’s investment.
At least €2.5 million went into priority projects such as the modernisation of Studio One, TV3’s original studio from its birth in 1998. From September 4th, viewers will see 3News Ireland coming from a flashy, grown-up set complete with long “video wall” for imagery and graphics. A revamped newsroom, which includes a mini-studio for sports bulletins, will be visible from the main news set.
TV3’s newsroom – “one of the biggest in the country” – employs more than 70 people, among them lead presenter Colette Fitzpatrick, head of news Mick McCaffrey, director of operations Áine Ní Chaoindealbháin and political correspondent Gavan Reilly, who starts Monday.
“This is more than a set, more than a technological infrastructure, it’s a whole new way of newsgathering,” says Kiely, as he gives the tour. In the past, TV3 was good at making big studio spaces look small, he notes. But that’s the past.
On Wednesday, TV3 will launch its autumn season, releasing further details about its ambitious, presenter poach-worthy plans for news and current affairs. Kiely talks about the team producing more news than what a linear channel can show, and notes that Virgin is a platform that can push TV3 content into many different places.
Pat Kenny Tonight will be back, while Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates are tipped to share the nightly current affairs slot, although Kiely will only talk about “a number of big names”. Kenny, Cooper and Yates are all men of a certain age (on a channel with a younger-skewing audience). Is there anyone a bit different lined up?
“When we unveil the line-up on Wednesday I think you will see a great diversity in terms of the people we will be putting forward as our current affairs – a great diversity in age, experience, gender.”
In the first autumn schedule to be presented by director of programming Bill Malone – lured to TV3 from RTÉ last year – schedule stalwarts Ireland AM and the 5.30pm news will be under the spotlight, while the entertainment returnees are led by Gogglebox and the Lucy Kennedy vehicle Livin’ with Lucy. There will also be a sprinkling of “pop docs” with grabby titles (which Malone favoured in his RTÉ2 days), while filming is underway on Al Porter’s Blind Date.
But the next batch of 23 episodes of Red Rock, the last to be filmed on its current set, won’t be shown until 2018, giving TV3 some time to decide whether to build a new set or swing the axe. On the one hand, TV3 says it doesn’t want to walk away from its €11 million investment, but on the other, well, it has known for some time that its lease was due to expire. There might simply be other shows it wants to make.
“We can’t do everything. We can’t have Red Rock 52 weeks a year, and have Six Nations and invest in news and current affairs,” says Kiely.
Would he have liked Red Rock to have a bigger audience? “Yeah. I would say that the ratings have belied, from my perspective, how terrific it is,” he says.
TV3 has “something up our sleeve” for its spring schedule, when it hopes its first Six Nations will prove “a jumping-off point for great weekend entertainment”. That something is Ireland’s Got Talent, although Kiely “couldn’t possibly comment”.
After a 40-day turnaround from the completion of Virgin Media’s acquisition of the forlorn UTV Ireland (now Be3) on December 1st, 2016, to the rebranding of the group’s three channels on January 9th this year, there is a sense that everyone is a bit dizzy from the whirlwind.
But Kiely is used to a breakneck pace. After a decade working in advertising agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi and DDFH&B, he was at TV3 from the outset in 1998. As commercial director, he played a key role in helping TV3 survive the recession, then, once the ink had dried on Virgin Media Ireland’s deal to buy TV3 Group from its former private equity owners Doughty Hanson, he became managing director in January 2016, replacing former chief executive David McRedmond. Kiely says he had teenage aspirations to be a journalist before going down the advertising path. Now he’s technically editor-in-chief of TV3 Group.
He thinks it’s a pretty good achievement that TV3 is the number two channel in the market. When it launched, it was only the fourth channel selling advertising in the Republic; now, with a glut of UK opt-out channels, there are more than 50.
Next year is “a very, very big year for the business”, not least because TV3 celebrates its 20th anniversary on September 20th. “Despite the market, despite everything that is going on around us, I think the business is in great shape,” he says. The group will turn a profit in 2017.
This is despite the advertising revenue kryptonite that is Brexit. “If you think Brexit affects RTÉ, let me say Brexit is having twice the effect on TV3.”
Ad revenues will likely drop this year, although there are some “green shoots”, and managing these peaks and troughs is what the business is all about anyway. “I’ve lived what happens when the market disappoints. But again I go back to having to cut your cloth.”
With six deficits in eight years, RTÉ is simply not doing this, he says. TV3 doesn’t want a share of licence fee income – “that’s certainly not an ask” – but it does want RTÉ “to operate to the rules of engagement on public funding” for as long as it enjoys its “virtual monopoly” of it.
“RTÉ proudly boasts that it had 20 of the top 20 shows last year. My question is, should RTÉ have 20 of the top 20 shows? I don’t believe any other state broadcaster on the planet had 20 of the top 20 shows last year. I don’t believe any other broadcaster enjoys the share of audience and share of advertising that RTÉ enjoys. So there is something wrong there.”
One of the reasons this list infuriates him is because six of the top 10 were Euro 2016 matches. That tournament was both “a great experience” and a missed opportunity for TV3. RTÉ sub-licensed 21 matches to its rival in a bid to claw back some cash. But TV3 wanted more matches and more of the top ones.
“RTÉ decided to sub-license a package of games which were lower-level games,” he says. If it had “split the tournament down the middle”, its deficit would have been smaller.
Would he like RTÉ to sub-license World Cup matches?
“I think Euro 2016 has shown that we are up for partnering,” says Kiely. Partnerships are the way forward for media businesses, he stresses, citing Virgin alliances with both Sky and Netflix, as well as several ways in which the BBC and ITV co-operate.
“The door is always open” on a joint diaspora channel, while he would like it if RTÉ productions sometimes rented TV3’s bigger studio to reduce the number of days it “unfortunately” lies idle. “We would love to create a Media City out here in Ballymount. ”
Liberty Global will take a long-term view, Kiely believes.
“But if this market doesn’t encourage and promote competition, and if the Government feels that supporting a dominant player is the way broadcasting flaws in Ireland will be sorted, then we have a problem. Then I think it will be difficult for me to encourage future investment in a television business in Ireland.”