Lights, cameras, but no action: How RTÉ plan to fill sporting void

Declan McBennett, RTÉ’s head of sport, feels your pain.

Lights, cameras, but no action: How RTÉ plan to fill sporting void

With the country in lockdown there have been plenty of calls for the national broadcaster to screen sports events from its archive. McBennett gives the background to how RTÉ’s sports department is dealing with the situation. The first clue is in that description: the sports department is part of a bigger organisation with a different focus right now.

“We’re in strange territory, no more than yourselves, than any other media organisation. We were planning for our biggest year, with the Euros, the Olympics and the GAA championships as the three main pillars.

“As we speak one of them is gone and the other two are in doubt, so we don’t know where we stand right now. Looking at our sports team at the moment, some of them are in self-isolation, some are working on archive projects, and everybody is subject to deployment, particularly with news and current affairs.

“The decision in RTÉ at the moment in broad terms is that the schedule is okay for the next couple of weeks, we have the content. But that’s changing on a daily basis. Fair City is gone, Eastenders is gone. The priority now is very much on public service. The news department and current affairs are taking the lead on that, and that’s RTÉ’s primary role.”

That doesn’t mean the lighter side has been completely forgotten, he says.

“There’s also a sense that the nation still needs to be entertained, with The Late Late Show, Dancing with The Stars and so on. And there’s a sense that sport will be part of that, coming to the fore in a couple of weeks through archive or, hopefully, through live sports at some point.” 

When it comes to those archive materials, McBennett gives the nuance to the bigger picture.

“We have access to material but you then enter a rights scenario, and technically Eir have the archive rights, so does the GAA.

“The GAA and TG4 are putting out some stuff at the moment but we’ve spoken to Croke Park and said we believe there’s an appetite for this and that it should be done. Croke Park is open to that and what they want is detail on proceeding.

“We don’t really own archive rights but we have a treasure trove that’s second to none, essentially, and we have a group at the moment which is digging out matches, the best matches, that we can turn to when required. It’s not just GAA games, obviously. We have people working on the soccer and rugby archives, and we’ll be looking at camogie, hockey and other sports also.

“We have international and domestic games in all sports, whatever we can get access to. The people who run the Champions League have this week cleared 10 classic matches which we could use, for instance.

“They’ve already done the editing on those, which means they’d be 48-minute highlights rather than 90 minutes. It can be made ready to go very quickly.” 

The reason RTÉ hasn’t flooded the schedules with archive is twofold: “First, the primary role right now is news and information.

“Second, there are also concerns that if there’s a case of the virus in RTÉ there might be repercussions for production.

We have enough journalists, but there are also key production and technical jobs in RTÉ which are done by four or five people. If one or two of those people can’t work then that could cause far wider difficulties.

“If Ireland does have 15,000 cases then it’s inconceivable that there wouldn’t be a case in RTÉ. That could lead to buildings being closed, or correspondents having to self-isolate and others being rotated in to replace them.

“And that comes back again to the commitments to news and current affairs. We can’t just commit to putting out programming in sport and then find that news and current affairs need sports staff to cover in that area.

“In terms of rights and access, I think most associations and federation will be flexible when it comes to accessing material, and some have already indicated a willingness to be flexible.”

There are technical elements involved in preparing archive material for broadcast as well: “TG4 were showing the 1998 All-Ireland final and had to do so with black lines on the sides of the screen.

“With games before 2010, when high-definition came in, there’s formatting that has to be done, more editing and so on, at a time when we’re trying to minimise contact within the organisation.

“Then, do you want Marty Morrissey or Joanne Cantwell to intro the programmes? If so then you need an outside broadcast unit, you’re bringing three or four people together to work.

“The alternative is just to show the games whistle to whistle, and then you’ll have people saying ‘there’s no great production value to that, but needs must. If you show the game whistle-to-whistle then you say ‘it is what it is’, but there are other issues you have to be aware of.

“For instance, what if one of the games has someone playing or commenting on it who’s passed away? You have to be very careful of the commentary, about whether certain comments are appropriate in that regard, the family sensitivities, all of that.”

Finally, the uncertainty surrounding the outbreak influences scheduling.

“Are we doing this for three weeks or three months? Are we doing this two nights of the week from 8pm to 10pm on RTÉ 2 or do people want one of these matches every single night because there’s nothing else on and production has been stood down elsewhere?

“We’re trying to feel our way through this. I’m getting texts from people looking for games to be shown, but that’s not the priority at the moment. And when it becomes the priority we have to make it the best offering, and the best offering based on a level of priority it deserves.

“With the best will in the world, the Six O’Clock News, the Nine O’Clock News, Prime Time, Morning Ireland - those are the priority at the moment.

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