TV3 takes a long ad break – and we miss a pivotal moment in Irish rugby history

Comment: They’re worth €6m to the station, but the endless ads are a source of irritation

This is the most any of us have watched TV3 in our lifetimes. The station has been going for 17 years and never before have they seen viewing figures like this. According to their website, 72 per cent of all adults watching a television in Ireland on Sunday afternoon were watching TV3, with the audience for the Ireland v France match in Cardiff reaching a peak of 1.42 million.

For a sense of how far into uncharted territory this puts them, consider that the equivalent fixture between the countries in the 2007 World Cup also drew a record audience to the station – the difference being that back then, the peak number was 863,000.

It was the biggest game of that World Cup, the largest audience in the station’s history and still it barely compares to this time around. Average viewers then – 622,000. Average viewers on Sunday – 1.15million. And it’s not just the Ireland matches. Australia v Wales last Saturday peaked at 797,000, for instance – an enormous number for a pool game not featuring Ireland.

So we're all watching TV3 – more of us even than watched for their record audience of 930,500 back in 2010 for the final of The X Factor. As well we might. The disappearance of ITV from the UPC cable package at the start of the year must go down as one of the great strokes of luck in the history of TV3 Sport, but they've taken full advantage of it. Having sole possession of terrestrial Champions League matches one night a week is a gift horse that could easily be looked in the mouth, but their coverage is routinely excellent.

Too professional

For the most part, there aren’t a huge number of bones to pick with the rugby either. From the start, TV3’s World Cup output has been informed, informative and professional. If anything, maybe a bit too professional.

The panel discussions could probably do with a bit more disagreement and maybe the occasional outbreak of unprofessional shouting over each other just to liven things up. It’s not that it’s missing George Hook – heaven forfend – but someone to do a bit of colouring outside the lines would make a change from the overwhelming niceness and sameness.

No, that’s not the problem. Everyone knows what the problem with TV3’s coverage is. It’s the ads. The endless, infinite ads – most especially the ones at half-time. It used to be you went and put the kettle on at half-time. At this World Cup, you have time to buy your own tea plantation in a some far-off climes, insist on fastidiously FairTrade plucking, packaging and shipping, all the while breeding your own cow for the milk.

The specific set of circumstances at half-time last Sunday made the ad break close to intolerable. Paul O'Connell was on the ground being treated by the Ireland medical team when they threw back to studio. Immediately there was a 30-second spot ad, 36 seconds of general chat and then Matt Cooper sent us off to the main ads with a promise to try and find out what was happening to O'Connell for when we came back.

The ads went on for five minutes and 44 seconds. One of them – and you couldn’t make this up – extolled the virtues of time in the making of cider. All the while, nobody knew for certain if the Irish captain had been able to get to his feet. The Twitter feeds of some of those in the ground told us a stretcher was coming out for him and that he was being carted away, which only made things worse.

Brief flash

This was Paul O’Connell. This was the end of the career of one of the great heroes of Irish life. And it was ending with the whole country watching but not being able to see it. When they went back to studio, there was a brief flash of O’Connell on a stretcher taking oxygen, followed by one minute and 42 seconds of chat on the game and then off to another five minutes and 37 seconds of ads.

Now obviously, it ill-behoves anyone working in the media to sneer at the earning of advertising dollars. This World Cup has been a bonanza for TV3 and good luck to them. For an initial pay-out reported to be about €3 million for the rights, they will bring in about €6 million in advertising cash. The Land Rover stings coming into and out of the breaks cost €450,000 alone and their tier one 30-second ad packages sold at €150,000 a pop.

And, as its soccer presenter Tommy Martin pointed out on Twitter during the week, TV3 is a commercial station that doesn't get a licence fee and has to make hay where it can. They can show 12 minutes of ads per hour, so stuffing them in between two 50-minute slices of live action makes sense. At least it makes sense written down.

As a viewing experience, however, it’s tiresome beyond words. When the World Cup is over, people will remember the rugby. But they won’t forget how the ads dominated the coverage either.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times