Speaking the language of sporting TV

Celebrating 25 years in existence in 2018, An Rinn-based Nemeton is one of the great success stories in Irish TV sports production. CEO and founder Irial Mac Murchú chronicles their rise from outsiders to market leaders, particularly in delivering GAA coverage.

Speaking the language of sporting TV

“I t’s foolproof. We got a partner downtown runs the central office of the Western Union. Race results from all over the country come in there and go right across his desk on their way to the bookies. All he does is hold them up a couple minutes until he can call us and get a bet down on the winner. Then he releases the results to the bookies and we clean up on a race that’s already been run. It can’t miss, unless the Western Union Dicks get onto it.” Johnny Hooker, The Sting

Unlike the big play against Doyle Lonnegan, there was never anything illegal about Nemeton’s business in 1996 but it was just as audacious and enterprising.

Literally running La Liga tapes back from Barcelona to Ireland so that they could form the meat and bones of Olé, Olé on TnaG on Monday nights an hour before Sky Sports and 24 hours ahead of Eurosport was as exciting as it was dangerous. A missed flight and it all would have been up in smoke.

Irial Mac Murchú readily admits “we literally did not know what we were doing” at the time.

“But we knew what we wanted to do, we had loads of youthful energy and we knew we wanted to establish ourselves and the channel because we have a passion for TG4, sport and the language.

"To get it to Irish viewers before the 640 pound gorillas, and I don’t say that disrespectfully, was a source of considerable pride.”

Twenty five years on, there’s no more flying by the seat of their pants. Where there was once just audacity, will and an entrepreneurial spirit, there is expertise, innovation and investment. A large part of Nemeton’s future depends on winning a new contract with TG4, which Ó Murchú is “cautiously optimistic” about, but their track record speaks volumes.

“It means a lot, the 25 years, because the average lifespan of a production company in Ireland is five years.

"There’s a reason for that because when producers/directors come out of college and they do very well and do some excellent programming and typically they get more and people want more they end up never crossing the bridge from being a producer to a business person, and that’s the essential bridge you have to cross because one person can only do so much.”

How has a TV production company based in Mweelahorna a little outside An Rinn, it itself 10km outside Dungarvan, managed not just to survive but flourish? The local community has a lot to do with that, believes Ó Murchú.

“When you look at the small Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area we are based here in west Waterford, it’s the community that took the industry to itself and they took to it like a duck to water.

TG4 at the Guinness PRO12 Final match between Munster and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Pic: by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
TG4 at the Guinness PRO12 Final match between Munster and Scarlets at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Pic: by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

“Two-thirds of our staff are from the area and some of them have worked over 20 years with Nemeton and now we’re seeing their kids coming out of college and getting jobs with us and taking up the mantle.”

Of course, he was told he was mad to base the company in as remote a place as An Rinn would have been in the 1990s. Others in the trade who have since become friends warned him. Those closest to him asked him if he was thinking straight.

“What emphasised that was to have an edit suite back in the mid-90s you would have had to spend €250,000. Of course, the power of an edit suite back then is the equivalent to what you would have now on a Macbook. That’s how much technology has moved forward. Between satellite links and fibre links today, you can be really geographically agnostic; it doesn’t matter where you work.”

Outsiders figuratively as they were geographically, it gave Nemeton, named after the word for a Celtic sacred place, an edge as well as an onus.

“When you’re not mixing in circles with your contemporaries in Dublin and places like that you don’t get sucked into their herd mentality and you see things from your own perspective, which is inevitably different. I would say we’ve always had to work harder to be slightly different, to be a bit innovative to bring a fresh perspective to things.

“When you’re outside The Pale, you do have to work that bit harder to ensure that what you bring to the table will gain you the extra inches to win the contract. Even though TG4’s contract is by far our biggest and most valued, we also do work for RTÉ, BBC, Sky, BBC Scotland and BBC Alba. It has been an advantage to be outside the circle, so to speak.”

Their dedication to the Irish language would also put them on the periphery but it’s also been considered a crutch in terms of attracting favour when it comes to contracts and funding. Bunkum, says Ó Murchú.

“The point about that is you never ever get a day’s work off anyone because you speak the language or because we’re in the Gaeltacht.

“We’re extraordinarily lucky to have been producing sport for TG4 for over 20 years and are very proud for doing so. The development of sport on TG4 has been a phenomenal success and we’re proud to have been the engine behind that success. But there have been competitors from day one who every time a contract has come up have tried to eat our lunch.

“At times, we’ve lost part of our contracts that we’ve won back again. Everything we’ve ever done, I can say with hand on heart, is on a par or better than people who have never spoken a word of Irish can do. The merit of the work of the team in Nemeton speaks for itself.”

Sportsground, Galway 27 October 2017, Connacht vs Munster. The TG4 panel prepare for the broadcast. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland
Sportsground, Galway 27 October 2017, Connacht vs Munster. The TG4 panel prepare for the broadcast. Pic: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Ó Murchú doesn’t get to many games now as his CEO status dictates he take on more of a management position. The son of Dóirín, Ireland’s first female sports journalist, his grá for the games, particularly hurling, has never waned. “I always say when sport is in the blood it’s not a choice.”

So it’s a labour of love ensuring the sports Nemeton produce live are framed as well as possible.

“In general, in television in Ireland we have been slow to evolve our coverage of Gaelic games in the way that soccer and rugby has evolved.

“The day when we give the GAA viewer any old coverage, I think that day is long gone. The modern GAA fan expects and deserves more and it behoves all of us involved in producing and broadcasting games to continue to evolve different ways to do that.”

With many of the main sports broadcasting contracts tied down or in the final stages of being signed, Ó Murchú doesn’t envisage much change in the landscape for the foreseeable future. He’s taken note of how the social networks as well as Amazon, Apple and Google in the US have taken more interest in showing live sport, but he thinks Ireland will escape their gazes for now.

What’s more pressing, he believes, is the progress sports organisations are making in taking ownership of the coverage of their product.

“What will probably happen in the future is more sports bodies becoming their own media companies. What will happen then is instead of broadcasters trying to monetise sports rights and do the production themselves, the sports bodies will dictate they produce the coverage and they give a feed to the broadcasters and they will take the production fee and the rights fee and that will be the new way of doing things.”

But is it healthy for a sports body to become the editors? They already try to be, says Ó Murchú.

“I’m not going to name any sports bodies but we have had the phone hopping on a Monday morning… ‘I didn’t like what this person or that person said’.

“We don’t have to wait for them to be their own producers for them to be on the phone expressing in very strident terms what this and that analyst or commentator said. That’s not going to go away.”

Providing TG4 agree to continue their long-standing relationship, Nemeton’s cameras will be live broadcasting minor and U20/U21 championship games across the summer.

They will also be at senior championship matches, from which they will provide highlights on TG4’s highlights programme. Ó Murchú says the hour-long show isn’t ‘a catch-up service’ but more of an opportunity to show footage from matches that haven’t been broadcast on other channels over the previous two days.

The additional games this summer might well provide them with an opening almost as gilt-edged as Olé, Olé over 20 years ago.

“Instead of being at a disadvantage having the Monday night programme more than 24 hours after (The Sunday Game) it could become an advantage because we’ve got that period where we can sweep up what hasn’t been featured or other broadcasters haven’t had an opportunity to feature. That’s something we would hope would certainly attract more people to the programme if we win the contract.”

Whether sweeping up late or getting in early, Nemeton has always made good use of time.

Five snapshots from Nemeton’s 25 years

Along with TG4, the company’s pioneering spirit has been their strongest calling card, according to Ó Murchú. Seeing a market where others didn’t.

“We were the first to put the National Football and Hurling Leagues on television. We were the first to put club action on television. We were the first to put ladies football on television. We were the first to put rugby provinces on television before there ever was a Heineken Cup or a Celtic League.

"We were the first to put schools rugby on television. Whatever way you look at it, we have been at the forefront of putting indigenous Irish sport on television before it caught on and that stands on its own two feet, I don’t care what anybody says. Thankfully, we are only the producers. TG4 have had the vision and have done the Irish public a lot of service in that regard.”

For the Allianz Hurling League Division 1 earlier this month, Nemeton took the innovative decision to capture puck-outs from a height behind each goal while replaying previous scores in a smaller box in the bottom left corner of the screen, otherwise known as “picture-in- picture”.

“At the moment, we’re getting lots of kudos for what we do because people are noticing what we’re doing. But I can go back over the last 15 or more years and I can point out that we were the very first in the country to use the super slo-mo camera — it is common to have one or two at every game nowdays.

"They had not been used on Irish television before that. We were the first to use full production presentation from the sideline. Now it’s common with the other broadcasters. We were the first to use virtual graphics such as logos over the middle of the field — we started doing that in 2002, I think. We were the first to put microphones on the referee before anybody thought of it and so on.

“There are so many things that we pioneered but people never really picked up on it. Every couple of years, we’ve come up with a new innovation. I’m not saying other broadcasters would have adopted them but we have been ahead of them in bringing them on. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t get noticed because what we do today somebody else does next week or next year and nobody can point their finger at where it was first used.

"We meet every Wednesday and we would review something from the previous weekend whether it be something in our GAA or rugby coverage or our Monday night GAA programme. We kept asking ourselves, ‘Why are we missing puck-outs because they have become such a vital part of the game and kick-outs in football as well? How do we get around this?’

“So it wasn’t just a brainwave on the spur of a moment. The first thing was with the technical camera set-up on a GAA match you’re looking across the field so it’s very hard to see the trajectory of the ball from the puck-out under you do it from high up behind the goal.

“The other problem was you have multiple super slo-mo cameras and VT operators all over the place to show multiple angles of replays but what if you now have no time to show them? Some people were giving out, saying you could only see the replay in a small box, but we haven’t stopped full-screen replays.

"It’s only when we can’t fit them in time-wise that we’re showing them in the small box. It ticks both boxes. It’s not doable in every pitch because you can’t get cranes at every venue, high enough to do it, but we’ll be doing it wherever possible in the future.”

In 2012, Nemeton fell foul of Jim McGuinness when they conducted an interview with the Donegal manager prior to their league game against Laois as his former player Kevin Cassidy, who he dropped from the panel, stood close-by in his brief as TG4 analyst.

“It was a spur of the moment thing on the sideline when a producer was caught in the moment as an interview was going on. That person decided to give a wide-shot, which included the two men. There was nothing intentional in it and we regretted the way it happened.”

This year, Nemeton took the decision to extend their widely-regarded Laochra Gael programme from 30 minutes to an hour.

“Laochra Gael started out in 2001 as something which we could do in the summer when we had nothing else. We had no live sports coverage in the summer back then. Back in the early days we had giants like Ger Loughnane and Brian Cody and John Wilson and Dermot O’Brien, the only Louth captain ever to receive the Sam Maguire Cup in the Hogan Stand.

"There were suggestions at the time we wouldn’t have much for a second season but here we are now after, I think, 160 or 165 Laochra Gaels. It’s an odd number because Ned Power, the 1959 Waterford goalkeeper, was our first on the pilot programme.

"The thing about half an hour of television is it’s really only 25 minutes, two 12 minute segments with an opening and a closing. You don’t get an opportunity to go deep with the player or manager.

"This time last year — when we were discussing with the new management in TG4 about the future of the series — we were asked how we would feel about doing an hour and going deeper with the featured individuals to give a more human story with sport in the background. We said we would give it a go and I think this series would phenomenally well.”

Waterford hurlers’ 2007 Division 1 success was obviously a personally joyous occasion for Nemeton.

“As a Waterford-based company, the league final when the county won it for the first time since 1963 was a stand-out moment. We were all working on it and by God was it difficult for us to contain ourselves. We also televised De La Salle in the club final although not many people would want to recall that day.”

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