'The babe thing is just down to lazy stereotypes'

 

Disparaged by many in the beginning as the enfant terrible of taste, the Republic’s first commercial-only television station, TV3, has overcome the jibes to become a real player in attracting big audiences

IN BIRTH, as in life, TV3 attracted the odd sneer, as well as some sneers that in hindsight just seem odd. In the rival corridors of Montrose, RTÉ staffers dubbed the broadcasting infant “Tallaght TV” – a reference to its base in Ballymount, south Dublin. The TV3 camp, yet to transmit so much as a test card, professed not to mind the nickname – it was “much better than being the Dublin 4 network”.

On Sunday, September 20th, 1998, after a decade of delays, stop-start investment and political wrangling, the Republic’s first commercial-only television station finally went on air, generating mild panic among those who speculated that it was an inexorable step towards the “dumbing down” of the nation. An Irish Timeseditorial fretted that TV3’s mission to provide “bright, breezy, watchable news” did “not suggest a commitment to reportage and analysis of a high order” – the “worry must be”, it concluded, that TV3 would “leave highbrow programming to others”.

Inside Ballymount, failure to be sufficiently highbrow for The Irish Timeswas not exactly top of the agenda at the staff meetings. Just staying on air through the winter was a more pressing concern. TV3’s first chairman, James Morris, was chasing a modest 6 per cent share, hoping to “repatriate” viewers from British channels. The market research had suggested that the new station should appeal to people aged 15 to 44 who were “affluent acquirers, liberal sophisticates, young aspirers and comfy, full nesters”. Station bosses declared from the off that they would tear up the schedule if it wasn’t working.

“I didn’t plan anything beyond six or 12 months,” says Martin King. Recruited from 98FM, he was swiftly given a “wacky weatherman” tag by critics unused to anything other than poker-faced formality on the news.

“There was a great feeling of nervousness, excited nervousness,” he says. “For the likes of me and Alan [Cantwell], it was our first time in front of the cameras, and we knew that what we provided had to be different.”

With very little else in the way of home-produced programming, the news became the focus of TV3’s early identity. Fresh from TnaG, Gráinne Seoige, Cantwell’s co-anchor on the flagship teatime bulletin, was the exception not the rule: most TV3 “faces” were, by necessity, from radio. “I was news editor of INN [Independent Network News] at the time and I wasn’t that pushed, to be honest with you, about making the jump. TV was alien to me,” says Cantwell. “Then I thought, well, you only get one bite at the cherry.”

The appointment of Cantwell and Seoige became a key part of the channel’s pre-launch publicity that summer. “I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” Cantwell admits. “I just knew it was going to be a tight battle to make the station stay on air.” Journalists from other media outlets, meanwhile, were seemingly obsessed with the idea that TV3 planned to infiltrate Irish homes with “babes” who would upset the natural hierarchy of “serious” news.

As it happened, the debut TV3 news was all about sex, but it had little to do with the charms of Seoige, Cantwell, King or entertainment presenter Lorraine Keane. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was at its peak and news of Clinton’s videotaped grand jury testimony topped the headlines – though Cantwell needs to be prompted before it all comes flooding back. “I can’t even remember what the news was yesterday,” he sighs.

Colette Fitzpatrick, who joined TV3 as a news reporter in 2001 and now does Seoige’s old job, attributes the “babe” tag to “lazy stereotypes” about women in the Irish media.

“You still hear it the odd time,” she says of the phenomenon, agreeing that the inclusion of entertainment news as part of the main bulletin in the early years “probably contributed to the light and fluffy thing”. Coming from Today FM, where she had produced Sam Smyth’s show, she hadn’t realised how much attention would be paid to her appearance, and how much she would have to pay herself.

“I didn’t care about how I looked in radio. I don’t think I owned a suit before I came to TV3.” But it was what the suits were up to in the boardroom – not the newsroom – that would ultimately shape the channel. In 1998, the largest shareholder was Canadian television company CanWest. “They were a typical North American broadcaster in that they didn’t spend a penny on programming if they didn’t have to,” says Mike Pilsworth, chairman of Motive Television, which now makes GAA and football programming for TV3.

The early, import-heavy schedule was a hit-and-miss affair – for every Sex and the City(frank HBO groundbreaker with a snowballing audience) there was a Breakers(also-ran Australian soap). The approach was of little use to Irish programme-makers, who still effectively had only one customer.

“In the first five years of TV3’s existence, I was in the building maybe twice,” says Larry Bass, chief executive of Screentime ShinAwiL, maker of The Apprentice. “It was understandable, I suppose. That was their business model and they had to bed the station down. Sometimes you have to go for the lowest common denominator.” Granada Media, a predecessor of ITV, bought a 45 per cent stake in 2000, with the deal meaning that the Granada-produced Coronation Streetand Emmerdaleswitched from RTÉ to TV3. Regular soap-watchers deprived of UTV began to tune into TV3, some of them presumably for the first time.

This was a transitional phase for TV3, when it tried and soon abandoned experiments such as Friday evening chat on The Dunphy Showand flirted with international formats such as The Weakest Link. But staff in Ballymount began to relax. “It was when ITV got involved that we knew this was going to be for the long haul,” says King. “Because once they bought it, we knew that when they moved on they would want to make a profit – they would have to sell on to another investor.” Somewhat strangely, it was the exit of the two media groups, CanWest and ITV, and the purchase of their stakes by venture capital firm Doughty Hanson in 2006 that coincided with the most love and cash being poured into domestic programming. Bass and Pilsworth cite one man’s influence in particular: director of programming Ben Frow. A veteran of Channel 4 and Channel 5, Frow is “very decisive and very quick and has known exactly from the start what sort of channel he wants”, according to Pilsworth.

“I just decided to spend the budget in a different way,” says Frow, who, together with Fintan Maguire, his number two, established TV3’s independent production unit. They commissioned the multi-sponsored Apprenticeand added Middayand The Morning Showto a daytime schedule that was already starting the day with the solid audience share of Ireland AM. Frow also “super-sized” the ITV imports, broadcasting spin-offs such as The Xtra Factor,and, via independent producers, made clever use of Broadcasting Authority of Ireland funding.

“People said two things to me: ‘Don’t do anything at 9pm because you can’t go up against the news, and don’t do anything on a Friday’,” says Frow. He’s done both, though he cites the difficulty in playing against The Late Late. “That doesn’t mean to say you give up. Take Me Out, the Irish version, held up very well against it, as did X Factor USA.” Next to take on Tubridy is the semi-reality show Tallafornia, which previewed before Christmas to a pleasantly aghast reaction and had Paddy Power taking bets on the number of complaints to the BAI.

The 2012 roster of Celebrity Come Dine With Me, Family Fortunesand an autumn soap with the strictly working title of Taylor Hillwill undoubtedly generate more groaning, yet mysteriously manage to nudge TV3’s audience share up a little further.

It’s now more than 13 per cent, while sister channel 3e has become the most-watched digital-only channel.

Its success is on a shoestring: TV3’s programming budget is roughly one-sixth of that of RTÉ2, according to Frow, and human resources are thinly spread. Presenters such as Fitzpatrick, Cantwell and King have had to prove their flexibility.

Fitzpatrick hosts MidWeek, the Wednesday current affairs show that’s “not as hard as Prime Timeor Tonight with Vincent Browne”, she says, while her four co-workers on the programme busy themselves on other productions during its summer break.

“That’s the beauty of working in here. They don’t let you sit around for long.”

Having been “left minding the shop” while Fitzpatrick was on maternity leave, Cantwell worked through the general election despite blowing two discs in his back and also anchored TV3’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s visit.

“I think 2012 is going to be a really good year for TV3. It’s been hard enough over the last few years with the recession, but we’ve made a quantum leap in terms of what we do.”

King is now the co-host on The Morning Show,which sets itself apart from Ireland AMby concentrating on “human interest” tales. The show has been helped by the Irish public’s increasingly relaxed attitude to appearing on television since 1998, he believes, while high unemployment means the traditional “housewife” audience isn’t the only one watching anymore.

This year’s excitement will see the building of a high-definition studio at Ballymount that’s set to be comfortably bigger than its current workhorse. “The plans have gone up on a poster and everyone’s stopping to have a look,” King says. It’s all come a long way since his first birthday requests.