Last Wednesday on the the eve of the launch of the controversial Autumn schedule (and lost amid the Katie Taylor hoo ha), RTE managing Director, Television Glenn Killane appeared on Today Fm’s The Last Word. And gave a fairly fascinating insight into the RTE scheduling groupthink.
Matt Cooper: “How difficult has it been for you Glen to put together the schedule that you wanted, given financial constraints and also given all the problems you’ve experienced this year in current affairs because of the ‘Mission to Prey’ problem.”
Glen Killane: “Well, not difficult at all really, Matt. I think eh, our financial difficulties are there for everyone to see and we’re working through them. But all through the crisis which has kind of really been there for everyone since 2007, 2008, we’ve put content first, and we’ve had to make hard decisions in terms of content, but any of the cuts that we’ve made, we’ve tried to minimise the impact on screen. Now there have been choices; there have been, we’ve had to make some preferences; we’ve had to cut back on series, and some series we’ve had to drop, but I think eh, I think what we’ve launched today is something very, very compelling, something the Irish audience will engage with and I think eh, I think our viewership numbers should…”
Cooper: “When you say cut back on series and things, have certain programmes dropped but also if you had a series it might be that you only do four rather than six programmes, that type of thing?”
Killane: “Eh, in certain instances, I mean in some instances bigger is better in terms of longer-running shows, so for example one of our most popular lifestyle shows is ‘Room to Improve’. We went with hour-long versions of that series in the past and it proved very, very popular. That might mean being at the expense of another lifestyle series that was maybe less popular. Em, but yeah, in certain instances we have had to cut back, eh, and reduce the number of episodes but keep the content on screen at all times and try and drive more content out of the budget available.”
Cooper: “What are the untouchables when it comes to the RTE schedule?”
Killane: “Ooh, that’s a tricky question. I mean, you know, what are we known best for? We’re known best for our news and current affairs, our factual output, our entertainment, drama and sport. There’s children’s output as well. So I mean the range of programming that we provide is very comprehensive, and I suppose we are statutorily obliged to cover different demographics and different genres. So I suppose you know what we decided to do was concentrate most of our spending in peak time. When you’re faced with the Hobson’s choice that we’ve had over the last number of years – and other media companies and other companies throughout the country have had over the last number of years – no decision is easy. No decision to drop anything is easy. But what we decided to do as a strategy was to concentrate where most people were watching and concentrate our spend, and where we had spend, to peak time and pre-watershed slots – primarily 9.35 across the week and beyond that and then some early peak, from 6 to 9.”
Cooper: “So does that mean then pre-six o’clock, afternoon programming is taking the bulk of the cuts?”
Killane: “Yes I think that and some of our lifestyle programming has taken cuts. Again, I suppose, you know, last year we spend €170 million on television programmes. I think context is very, very important when you’re looking at what RTE does. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as an Irish television market per se, given the amount of digital penetration now. Our competitors are massive, massive UK companies such as Sky, BBC, ITV. BBC spent £1.8 billion sterling last year on programming. Sky spent £2.2 billion. Compare that to our €170 million. But yet, 47 of the top 50 programmes last year were broadcast by RTE. So we’re doing something right.”
Cooper: “Sorry, of those programmes, how many of them were Irish-made rather than imported?”
Killane: The vast majority. We don’t – the only programmes in the top 50 that were not Irish-made were ‘X Factor’, broadcast by TV3, ‘Coronation Street’ –
Cooper: And ‘Eastenders’?
Killane: ‘Eastenders’ may have been, I may stand corrected on that. ‘Eastenders’ was probably one of the ones. But the vast majority of RTE’s programming in the top 50 was home-produced.
Cooper: “But that suggests then that maybe in the past, when people didn’t have access to other stations, that there was always a big demand on RTE to buy in the major international programmes, that that isn’t RTE’s role any more, that RTE’s role is to provide Irish-made television for the Irish audience?”
Killane: “It’s very much part of our role, but I think there’s a balance to be struck, Matt. Em, all TV companies across Europe, public service broadcasters – particularly medium-sized public service broadcasters such as RTE – balance their books by importing some programming. It’s how you can kind of drive advertising revenue at a relatively low cost of production. To produce television is a very expensive business. And the cost of producing television doesn’t vary radically from Germany, with 80 million people, to Ireland with four-and-a-half, five million people. So we have to, we have to balance it. We spend 12% of our budgets on acquired programming. YLE, which is the Finnish broadcaster, fully funded by licence fee, spends in the region of 40% of their budgets on acquired programming. So I think the balance is very, very good in favour of Irish programming on RTE. We’d like it to be better, but the circumstances we’re in mitigate against that.”
Cooper: “But even within the Irish-made programming, how do you balance between chasing ratings and fulfilling a genuine public service?”
Killane: “I’m not a great fan of the expression ‘chasing ratings’. For me it’s about relevance. If you’re spending public money and nobody’s watching the programming you’re producing, it’s not particularly good value for money for the public purse. So for me it’s not about lowest common denominator. I mean, we’re launching our autumn season in September with back-to-school week, a factual week examining education in Ireland, and the issues that come from that. One of the programmes follows Ruairi Quinn for a week – for a year – as he tries to kind of grapple with the education system and the difficulties the financial crisis has brought to bear on it. Another one is John Lonergan examining the role that education plays in delinquency and criminality. So I mean, I think, you know, those programmes will be watched by large numbers of people, I would think, but they’re essentially public service. So public service for me is not about nobody watching the show. It’s about programming of relevance to the Irish public, programming that defines what we’re about and reflects what we’re about, and also kind of provides a window on the world as well.”
Cooper: “Well let me give you an example that I’ve put to Pat Rabbitte before and Pat Rabbitte seemed a bit baffled by it because he hadn’t seen it, an example like ‘Brian and Pippa get married’. Now where is the public service relevance to doing a story about the sister of our Olympic winner Cian O’Connor today, on her marriage?”
Killane: “Do you know what? That, you know, that’s a difficult one for me to argue in terms of public service, Matt, but what I would say, for me it’s about a balance. And we have to – entertainment and a bit of fun and escapism is important. I think where Brian and Pippa come in, if you like, and that type of programme comes in is where you look at our two channels. You’ve got RTE 1 and you may see, over time, in terms of looking at our schedules, that RTE 1 will be providing very strong factual programming or current affairs on 1 at 9.30, and Brian and Pippa might play on 2 for a little bit of escapism, something that might just – you know, you just want to graze, you don’t want to be challenged too much, and actually we’re seeing a trend in media generally overall. People, there are growing numbers of people who just want to just switch off a bit.”
Cooper: “Yeah but how influenced are you by the type of programming that TV3 does in the Irish market, as an Irish competitor, and how much of your own output is now influenced, if not dictated, by what you see as being successful on TV3?”
Killane: “I’m a huge admirer of what TV3 have done. I think they do a great job. I don’t, I mean, I know this sounds, you can take this or leave it, but I actually don’t see TV3 as a competitor. I think we have to, we have common cause here, because the 800-pound gorilla in the room are the Rupert Murdoch channels that are coming in here, selling advertising. There are now over 20 channels selling advertising in the Irish market and there’s only four channels producing Irish-made content. So a hell of a lot of money is being sucked out of the Irish market and is being brought to the UK, and it’s not being put back into the sector. In terms of influencing our programming decisions, if you look at, RTE 2 might be compared in some instances with TV3 because we carry a lot of acquired material and we carry, but we carry, we carry a lot of original material. We produce comedy. Fifty per cent of the schedule on RTE is children’s output, which has very little advertising and no sponsorship. We’re now producing documentaries, we’ve had drama, we’ve had Hardy Bucks, things like that on RTE 2, so it’s not really in TV3’s space. TV3 do what they do, we do what we do, and I think we most of the time happily coexist. I think what’s happened is there’s been a real squeeze on advertising, and I think the problem is all of these channels now opting to sell advertising in Ireland, and sucking some of the lifeblood out of the system.”
Cooper: Some of the big successes you’ve had in RTE in recent times in drama, the likes of Love/Hate, which many people think is probably the best thing that’s been done possibly in decades in RTE in drama, and Raw, programmes like that, are you bringing those back? Are you spending the money on those?
Killane: “Yeah, they’re coming back. Love/Hate has been an absolute unqualified success. It’s critically acclaimed and the public love it. It’s coming back for series 3; it’ll be back in the autumn. Raw will be back in the new year also. And Fair City continues to pull up trees.. So our drama slate, while reduced in circumstances we find ourselves in, is very strong, and I think Jane Gogan [Head of Drama] and Steve Carson [Head of Television] have done a really, really good job in bringing these returnable series, because drama is an expensive business, and we’re the only significant player in the Irish market producing drama, and it’s important that we have a decent strike rate and 100% is pretty good.”
Cooper: “Just briefly going back to the afternoon programming, the likes of the Daily Show and the programme that came before it, Four Live, are they gone now? Are they being replaced with anything?”
Killane: “Em, as we stand here, we have no daytime, original daytime content but we’re working on something and we hope to be making an announcement shortly on it. It’s an area that we’ve been upfront about. We need commercial support to produce that programming, so we hope to be able to make an announcement on that shortly.”
Cooper: “OK, two things just to finish off with. Sport: you’re doing a usual comprehensive job on the Olympics at present, following on the European Championships. It’s all very, very expensive. There’s been a lot of reports that sport may be an area to which you can give less money in the future. How much is your sports output likely to be cut back?”
Killane: “We’ve been on the record. We set out a three-year strategy to reduce our sports rights by 25%, so, em. The difficulty with sport is – and it’s an area I have some experience on as a former head of sport – the difficulty is you’re dealing with multiannual contracts, so a lot of the contracts we continue to fulfil and continue to pay up were done in 2006-2007. We honour, we always honour our contracts but we are renegotiating on our partners, be it FAI, GAA or the IRFU or indeed UEFA, to renegotiate our contracts as they fall due. But eh, sports rights, they were unsustainable. There was, there was, a bit like the property boom, you know, there were unsustainable prices paid, not just by us by other broadcasters I would argue as well, and particularly a lot of pressure coming from UK companies hiking up prices. So we’re in a different space now.”
Cooper: “And just to finish off, have you tried to play it safe as much as possible with this autumn schedule in the sense that it’s a lot of the usual suspects returning – the Late Late Show, Brendan O’Connor returns on a Saturday night, Craig Doyle continues with his chat show, the Voice of Ireland is back, Celebrity Bainisteoir is back. Is that down to perhaps a little bit of a fear of trying something new, that it just won’t work?”
Killane: “You could say that. You could also take the converse of that and say we’ve been very successful with what we’ve commissioned. They’re worth another series. There is a lot of new stuff there. I think one thing that I would like to highlight is we’ve got a very, very exciting initiative on RTE 2 called Format Farm, where we’re partnering with some of the biggest distributing distribution companies in the world such as Warner Bros etc, to fund brand-new Irish-designed formats. And there’s going to be some really, really interesting stuff come out of that, that we hope to be able to commission longer runs of some of them. But, you know, one thing we’re not short of in this country is creativity, and when we put it up to the independent sector, and our own people in RTE, they always deliver, and I think that’s potentially a really, really good news story. We’ve seen how the success of Israel, they’ve developed formats, and we think Ireland could be a country which generates formats and exports them around the world and I think that could be a really good thing for the sector here, and for RTE as well.”
Cooper: Glen Killane, managing director of RTE television, thank you. Actually there is one other thing I have to ask you about. I know it’s not your direct responsibility, but you’re probably aware today lots of people were trying to log on on their computers to watch the Katie Taylor fight and the system crashed. What happened, do you know?
Killane: “Unfortunately, Matt, I was in the middle of the autumn launch to the press when it happened. I heard about it afterwards. Em, I don’t know a tremendous amount about it but what I would say to people who were trying to log on is eh, we’re very sorry about the technical glitch that appears to have happened but, and we’ll be releasing more information soon, but you can catch up on it on RTE 2 tonight.”
(Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland)