Virgin Media Television’s Bill Malone: ‘New talent is our lifeblood’

Broadcaster is not in cost-cutting mode, says VMTV director of content

Bill Malone, director of content at Virgin Media Television: ‘It’s not as easy to be creative in a world where it’s screen-to-screen as opposed to person-to-person.’ Photograph: Andres Poveda

Bill Malone, director of content at Virgin Media Television: ‘It’s not as easy to be creative in a world where it’s screen-to-screen as opposed to person-to-person.’ Photograph: Andres Poveda

 

Virgin Media Television (VMTV) plans to increase its investment in programming in 2022 as it seeks to “make money go further” on screen through international partnerships and reach more 25-44 year-olds, according to director of content Bill Malone.

“Our ambition is quite big,” he said, speaking as he and other Virgin executives prepared to update independent production companies about its commissioning plans at an online event for the sector on Thursday.

“Success for us is a programme that works well on our free-to-air channels, works well at peak-time, works well on-demand. And, typically, it attracts international attention.”

Virgin will find out early next year if “a major broadcaster” that has optioned its A&E Networks-distributed format Generation Dating – developed by Coco Content from an idea by VMTV motion graphics designer Laura Dowling – will go to series with it. All3Media International is also seeking sales for Eating with Your Enemy, in which people with opposing views are paired together for a meal to see if they can find common ground.

A second series of Virgin’s original Irish version, bearing the slightly different title Eating with the Enemy, is about to go into production after makers Animo TV were awarded €450,000 through Sound & Vision. This was the single biggest award in the latest round of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s licence fee-funded scheme.

“For a show to work on a high level, it does need to have funding, and for the BAI Sound & Vision round, we’d be very strategic in terms of the type of shows we go for. They need to really resonate and have significance to Irish culture and the talking points and the touchpoints about what it means to be Irish or live in Ireland today.”

Mr Malone said talent show The Big Deal – which saw ratings drop off over the course of its autumn run – had been designed as a pilot series for US studio Fox Alternative Entertainment and had not involved a big spend by Virgin.

“It’s about key learnings. To be totally honest, you would be looking at everything, you would be looking at minute-by-minute ratings, what works and what doesn’t, where you need more jeopardy, where you don’t.”

Talent callout

Virgin is now poised to reopen Virgin Media Discovers, a short film competition run in association with Screen Ireland, for a third year. Last year’s “callout for diverse talent” saw 10 films developed from more than 700 entries, with two winners – Punch Line by Allie O’Rourke and Becky Cheatle and Water under the Bridge by Rehan Ali – going into production.

In this year’s €200,000 competition, nine projects will be developed and three short films produced, with submissions opening from December 1st. A separate scheme, Sharp Shorts, will search for new voices in factual genres.

“New talent is the lifeblood of the organisation and the lifeblood of media and broadcasting. I would see Virgin Media as being a very contemporary brand and I don’t mean that in a po-faced way.

“We’re not trying to be down with the kids, but at the same time there is a youthful contemporariness to Virgin Media Television. We want to be representative of Irish society in the broadest sense,” said Mr Malone, citing Gogglebox Ireland as an example of how it does this.

The recent departure of some high-profile VMTV presenters has happened for a mix of reasons and is “the nature of the business”, he said.

“People see talent leaving and say ‘you’re obviously in cost reduction [mode]’, but that’s not the case – there is always change and evolution. We’re investing more in content than ever before.”

Before the Covid situation deteriorated, it was hoped the commissioning event for the independent sector would take place at its Ballymount studios rather than virtually.

“One of the biggest kicks I’ve always got from the business is meeting creative people, meeting production companies, meeting great talent, having conversations. Someone would come in with two bad ideas and leave with three brilliant ideas,” Mr Malone said.

Not being able to have these conversations in person is “very much one of the downsides of the Covid world”, he added. “Creativity is a shared experience and it’s not as easy to be creative in a world where it’s screen-to-screen as opposed to person-to-person. You miss that spark.”

Winter viewing

As the Covid picture darkens, its news audience figures have seen a “renewed bounce”. The broadcaster also continues to do strong ratings business on its ITV imports, with the first episode of the nightly I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! attracting an average audience of 437,000 last Sunday across its 90-minute slot and performing especially well among the 15-34 year-old and 25-44 year-old groups tracked by advertisers and targeted by Virgin.

This “huge brand” will be followed by six consecutive nights of Simon Cowell’s new music game show series Walk the Line.

As the year-end approaches, VMTV channels are on track for a record audience share of 19 per cent, while its forecast of 44 million streams would also be its highest to date. This has been boosted by more than 12 million streams for Love Island – “a huge beast of a series for us”.