All this week, TBI is hearing from broadcasters around the world about the kind of changes they have had to make to adapt to the Coronavirus pandemic. Today we speak to Dermot Horan, RTÉ acquisitions chief – and European Broadcasting Union committee member – about how the Irish pubcaster is adapting and the wider picture across Europe.
“The immediate impact [of Covid-19] for a public broadcaster such as RTÉ is that you suddenly have this huge responsibility to get the information to the public,” says Horan, director of acquisitions and co-productions at RTÉ. “You are the main repository for key information.”
This bears out, he says, in the increased demand for news and current affairs programming. “We have seen extraordinarily high audiences for our news summaries and people who don’t normally watch the news – the under-35s, the under-45s – watching in enormous numbers.”
But it is also impacting traditionally lighter programming, he explains. “Entertainment shows like The Late Late Show have gotten rid of their audiences and their live band, but they’ve kept going, they have changed their focus and are much more about dealing with the crisis. It started with people showing how to properly wash your hands and in time we’re going to celebrate the heroic health workers,” says Horan.
The pubcaster will also air curriculum-based, junior school programming for an hour every day to help parents with kids at home but new shows are on the way too.
“Our fitness programme, Operation Transformation, is going to have an iteration which will have advice for people on how to exercise, eat healthily and stay healthy while at home. We’re doing lot of those type of programmes, which we’re turning around very quickly.”
Buying some time
The secondary impact of the crisis, says Horan, has been on shows currently in production and identifying what could continue and what productions would stop.
“Quite a few of our shows with quite small numbers of people involved have been able to keep going,” he explains. “But then shows like Fair City, which is our four-times-a-week soap opera, based in Dublin, would have contravened the rules of social distancing. So that stopped production and is going to two nights a week to eke out as many weeks as possible and keep it in the schedule.”
Horan says that he has also employed the same strategy for some acquired shows, reducing the number of episodes on air to try to “buy ourselves some time” until they go back into production.
This, coupled with programmes that have completely shut down, has obviously created holes in the schedule as well. Horan says this is where RTÉ can provide comfort to their viewers.
“There are a lot of more mature people who are stuck at home and are obviously extremely nervous, because they’re in a vulnerable age group or they may have underlying health issues. As well as looking at the news, we have put in a lot of classic matinees into the weekend schedule, like Spartacus, Dr Zhivago and The Magnificent Seven.
“We’re trying to put in films that will help people escape and escape back into their youth. Those kind of titles have a real value at this time,” says Horan.
The European picture
As well as his role at RTÉ, Horan is VP of the European Broadcasting Union’s TV Committee and is in regular contact with his counterparts at broadcasters around Europe, who he says are all “faring pretty much in the same way.”
Horan explains: “Our news and current affairs are doing extraordinarily well, we are the voice of trust in terms of news and information. And we’re all encountering the same thing, with production stopping in an awful lot of programmes where there are lots of people or audiences, or scripted drama where you have lots of people on a shoot.
“My colleagues in other acquisition departments are beginning to look at material made in recent years that perhaps for one reason or another they weren’t able to pick up [but will do so now].”
Looking down the line to when the crisis has passed – whenever that may be – Horan adds that government subsidies to help keep people in work will be vital to get the industry back on its feet.
“That’s key, because that business continuity will mean you will be in a much quicker position to fire up productions when the time comes.”