Off-camera drama in the world of television
While the globalised industry has been busy consolidating its interests here the Government is doing little to help Irish television culture
The summer has been a fascinating one for Irish TV but not necessarily on screen. Off-camera, in the boardrooms of telecoms companies, quiet drama has unfolded.
Virgin Media, a subsidiary of the international cable company Liberty Global, has acquired the Dublin-based channel UTV Ireland from its temporary owners ITV and brought it into the same “family” as TV3 Group.
Eir has rebranded its purchase Setanta Sports as Eir Sport, snatched the TV rights to the 2019 Rugby World Cup and poached RTÉ Television managing director Glen Killane to lead its nascent TV business.
These events crystallise the ongoing transfer of power and influence from traditional broadcasters to the telecoms sector. Virgin Media and Eir view the delivery of TV as one element of a suite of services, the most commercially important of which is broadband. At Sky, the biggest pay-TV company in Ireland, the most eye-catching innovations are reserved for broadband customers.
Industry-watchers used to talk about a future in which TV and telecoms would converge – not just in their business plans but in the minds of consumers as they pay their bills. That future is now here.
RTÉ, which has endured a halving of its commercial TV revenues and diminishing returns from an oft-evaded licence fee, knows this. New director-general Dee Forbes has told staff that her priority is to “future-proof the organisation”.
Even with the licence fee wedge, its position has weakened. While the globalised industry has been busy consolidating its interests here, the Government is not doing much to help Irish television culture. The Programme for Partnership Government made no mention of broadcasting.
Virgin Media has promised to invest more in local production, and perhaps the Minister for Communications will be assured by this, and content to let RTÉ drift. But there are no guarantees that the recent corporate activity will bring more choice to viewers or sustain the current level of employment.
Government inaction is not a substitute for policy any more than an on-demand catalogue is a substitute for a national broadcaster.