Virgin TV targets 2019 revenues as it vies to keep Love Island audience all year round

MD Paul Farrell on The Big Deal, daytime changes and sharing Six Nations with RTÉ

Virgin Media Television managing director Paul Farrell: ‘There are times when we have to be pragmatic.’ Photograph: Andres Poveda

Amid neon lighting strips and bizarre stunt acts, The Big Deal debuts on Virgin Media Television this Saturday, and managing director Paul Farrell is confident that the gamified talent show has the magic ingredient to attract a key demographic as autumn nights close in.

“Jedward, I’m sure, will bring in a younger audience,” he says of the twin celebrity judges. “In and around 250,000-300,000” viewers, across all age groups and platforms, would be “a very solid performance”.

Virgin is bucking this year’s market slide in linear viewing, says Farrell, while on-demand viewing, supported by better distribution of its player, is growing.

His mission now is to bring the broadcaster’s revenues back to 2019 levels after a 15-16 per cent decline in Covid-afflicted 2020. That means ensuring its appeal to 15-34 year-olds is “less lumpy” throughout the year and less dependent on the juggernaut that is Love Island.


Despite taking “a while to get going” and missing “a strong Irish personality to give it that wow factor”, the imported ITV2 series still did better for Virgin in 2021 than in 2019, dropping about 2 per cent on linear, but rising 5 per cent on-demand. Of Virgin’s 33 million streams in the year to date, Love Island accounts for 12 million.

“Love Island for us is a good opportunity, but it does mean we need to have a less lumpy profile of young people. We can’t rely on having a huge two to three month spike and then not be able to satisfy advertisers [in other months],” says Farrell.

The Virgin Media One daytime line-up, meanwhile, has been rejigged to "reinforce" its linear channel growth with the long-running Elaine show replaced by ITV's Loose Women. Farrell says Virgin "would get a lot of interactions from viewers saying they miss Loose Women", while presenter Elaine Crowley is "a very capable and articulate and well-liked broadcaster" who will have "a good dynamic" with Simon Delaney in her new role co-presenting Ireland AM from Friday to Sunday.

During Covid-19 lockdowns, Ireland AM saw its ratings “take a dip” between 7am and 7.30am. Now, as daily routines revert to pre-pandemic normalcy, Virgin wants it to have a greater focus on news to cater for the catch-up-and-go audience, Farrell says.

On The Big Deal, Virgin worked with Bigger Stage – led by Farrell's predecessor Pat Kiely – and Fox Alternative Entertainment, a unit of US media giant Fox that "has an R&D budget that is probably bigger than our whole budget". If the show does well "other opportunities will present themselves".

Love Island’s winning couple Millie and Liam: for Virgin, the show’s 2021 audience slipped on linear but grew on-demand and overall. Photograph: ITV

Six Nations

While drama partnerships with UK broadcasters – including ITV on upcoming six-parter Redemption – are now embedded in the Virgin model, its alliance with domestic rival RTÉ on the sharing of Six Nations rights is more of an eyebrow-raiser.

Under the next four-year deal from 2022, there will be a rotation in the number of Ireland men’s team home games, with the schedule designed to be “as equitable as it can be”. The broadcaster showing the England game will probably also have the Italy one, a relative ratings underperformer.

“We will cross-promote on both stations. We will be openly saying switch over to RTÉ2 now to get the match, and vice versa. So it is a very mature partnership and a good sign of things to come and where things need to go,” Farrell says.

The deal was agreed in May in the wake of his annoyance at RTÉ’s (unsuccessful) attempt to snatch back Virgin’s UK racing rights. It also follows regular Virgin criticism of RTÉ’s position and behaviour in the Irish market.

“I said to Dee [Forbes, RTÉ director-general] that I’m probably the one who gives out the most about you guys. But there are times when we have to be pragmatic and I think we got to a very good outcome for everybody,” he says. “It’s good for punters, it’s good for us and it’s good for rugby.”

In light of rights inflation, going it alone again “would have put us under pressure as a business, to be honest with you”, he adds.

The Ballymount-based broadcaster is owned by Virgin Media Ireland, which is part of Liberty Global, though there is chatter that the John Malone-controlled company wants to sell its entire Irish operation. Farrell says he cannot comment.

What he can say is that Virgin Media Television – previously known as TV3 Group – has become a stronger broadcaster since Liberty acquired it in 2015.

“Without Liberty backing us and trusting us, I think the TV business particularly wouldn’t have as good a story and as a good a future as it currently has.”