A breakthrough for RTÉ2: how the station is winning younger viewers

A year and a half into the job, RTÉ2 channel controller Bill Malone is claiming some victories in persuading younger audiences and women to switch over, although Pantigate was a blip and budgetary problems remain

In October of last year, Bill Malone was half a year into the job of channel controller of RTÉ2. At the time, Malone spoke at a mile a minute in his office in RTÉ on the subject of the occasionally successful pathway from online content to television programming.

Malone is a fan of TV speak (Damo and Ivor is "our biggest non-linear TX hit" he told me at the time). He likes words such as "resonance" and "relevant". Just over a year later, RTÉ2 has had something of a quiet renaissance, with less ammunition for those who delight in slagging the station, and its ratings are up.

Malone is RTÉ new school. When he says Twitter he doesn't sound like David Attenborough observing a new species of vole. At Other Voices in Derry this year, he sat in the crowd upstairs sporting a big hipster beard.

Last month, he took part in Irish Times journalist Jim Carroll's Banter, a series of talks in Dublin's Twisted Pepper that draws an eclectic audience on Middle Abbey Street and at festivals around the country. Before he headed into the main room to take part in a panel discussion about reality TV, which also featured Anna Nolan and two cast-members of the RTÉ2 hit Connected, Malone dropped a reminder of RTÉ's Electric Picnic coverage. Montrose tends to be ambivalent towards music programming, viewing it as a tough win for ratings. Yet RTÉ rocked up to Electric Picnic with an elevated studio towering over the VIP area, and it broadcast gigs from Stradbally. It was no BBC at Glastonbury, but it was an impressive commitment.


Malone lists off programmes that have worked and he thinks will work: Meet the McDonaghs; Bressie's Teenage Kicks (he praises Fight Like Apes frontwoman MayKay in that one); The Unemployables; and Exiles, an upcoming reality TV show with young Irish people in Vancouver.

The numbers game

He takes some stapled pages out of his bag; these are the golden figures. Last year, RTÉ2 was the third-most-watched channel for 15-24-year-olds in Ireland. Now it's the second. It's up 14 per cent year-on-year during peak time among 15-34-year-olds. This makes him happy.

But RTÉ also took a battering from that age bracket following the Pantigate furore earlier this year. And it wasn't just about angry tweeting or Facebook rants. Marriage Equality received symbolic donations of "licence fees" to the tune of thousands of euro. And some programmes haven't set the world alight. Drunk, which featured the likeable presenter Eoghan McDermott, skidded along the meniscus of the "social experiment" genre without breaking the surface.

“The revolution of content has been happening for the last year and a half – the last year in particular,” says Malone.

“This all started with [research team] Insights doing a big body of work on 18-34-year-olds: who they are, what they’re into. The channel in peak time is designed for 15-34-year-olds and those who think young. I’d put you and me in that category, although I’m not 34. My head is in that space.”

RTÉ1 is still the most-watched channel for 15-24-year-olds. “That’s because they have huge volume,” says Malone.

"They are number one. We're now number two. We were number three in 15- 24-year-olds, which is a real difficult demographic to deal with in terms of engaging with television. And we're regularly killing the slots with the likes of Damo and Ivor, Republic of Telly, Trending, Angela Scanlon, Maia Dunphy. There's a lot of stuff coming in that's resonating with younger viewers and those who think young. So we're number two now and that's the first time we actually crystallised that."

Perhaps RTÉ2's greatest victory has been its ability to send up the organisation, setting the channel apart from the suits with the likes of Republic of Telly, a sometimes miss but mostly hit show that slags off other RTÉ programmes.

Special attention is paid to female audiences. Connected won legions of female fans, and Malone mentions female audiences several times, with What Women Want and Full Frontal also doing well. Even in sports programming, Second Captains Live smartly breaks the blokey mould with female guests.

Budget problems

The problem of budget constraints is still there. Audiences know cheap TV when they see it. “There’s a lot we could be doing better. I do find that the really constrained finances of an under-pressure-financially RTÉ really impacts me. There’s so much that I want to do, and, as we’re doing it, it’s really starting to resonate. Younger viewers are starting to tune in, it’s starting to work for us. We need more.”

Is it possible that, because of budget constraints, both RTÉ and independent production companies have had to be more creative?

"We make Reality Bites documentaries and there's going to be some really exciting ones, but they are one hour long. We're doing them for a fraction of the price of what a standard documentary would be." If Malone had bigger budgets, he wouldn't put more money into existing hours of TV.

“If I had the money, we’d find more hours. We need to have more home production. We need to own the channel.”

Like most Irish content, the real value becomes apparent when outsiders cotton on. The Notorious, a documentary on the UFC fighter Conor McGregor, sold to Fox, and RTÉ commissioned a new six-part series. The Takeover, a business-lite show where employees take over from bosses, has been commissioned to series by Channel 4. With UTV on the horizon and TV3 always trying to outsmart the better- resourced national broadcaster, Malone has his work cut out.

The most interesting thing he said in Twisted Pepper was that ratings aren't the be-all and end-all: success and sentiment are about more than that. Then came a shade of ruthlessness: sure, Connected is great, he said, but if a better prospect comes along, it'll get the chop.