Wednesday, October 21, 2015

THE IRISH BROADCASTING CARTEL

Irish broadcasting is now in the hands of a very small cartel of businessmen leading to concerns about diversity, impartiality and competition.

The media news cycle has been dominated by ITV's proposed €135m takeover of UTV and UTV Ireland but is this leading to a further dilution of Irish commercial broadcasting, away from a national identity?

Has the competition and choice as regulated for in 1988 being stifled with UTV Ireland now in the hands of the UK market leader and also by TV'3 acquisition by Liberty Global in 2015 for a reported €80m? The TV3 deal included the sale of its sister station 3e which had begun life as Channel 6 only to have its parent company Kish Media swallowed up by the TV3 acquisition. The diversity for both viewers and advertisers has taken a hit.

Liberty Global has been extremely active in the Irish broadcasting market in recent weeks as it rebrands its cable and digital provision service UPC as Virgin Media Ireland. It is one a major player in the Irish market and as ITV takes over UTV, John Malone's Liberty Global has increased its stake in ITV from an initial 6.4% to 9.9% leading to speculation of a takeover bid that would surely bring Ireland's Competition Authority to the table. Liberty's initial investment in ITV had cost €500 million.

Liberty's CEO is Colorado born Irish-American John Malone. He made his fortune in the cable TV provision sector in the United States. Liberty Global's revenue in 2014 was $18 billion employing over 35,000 across fourteen countries.

UTV having divested itself of its television portfolio is still heavily involved in radio broadcasting both north and south of the Irish border and in the UK. UTV Radio operates Q102, 96FM, C103, Limerick 95, U105 and FM 104. As though to prove that the Irish media circle is extremely small, former CEO of FM 104 Dermot Hanrahan purchased the Irish arm of the cinema advertising giant Carlton Screen from ITV renaming it Wide Eye Media.

In radio terms another giant is Denis O'Brien's Communicorp founded in 1989 which operates the commercial nation and quasi national stations Today FM and Newstalk as well as 98FM and Spin FM. In commercial radio in Ireland there are very few single franchise owning firms with many such as Bay Broadcasting and Landmark Media owning more than one radio station.

The third biggest influence presently in the Irish market is Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. Their provision of satellite TV services and channel opt outs for domestic advertising has fragmented the advertising cash pool being chased by the state broadcaster RTE and commercial operations like TV3 and UTV Ireland. Sky also provide content such as Sky News, Sky One and Sky Sports.

To a lesser extent in the television market but still a major player in terms of advertising sales and creating expensive bidding for sports TV rights is Setanta Sports Ireland. Setanta is 60% owned by MCD promoter Denis Desmond through his Gaeity Investments vehicle while the remaining 40% is in the hands of founders Michael O'Rourke, Leonard Ryan and Mark O'Meara.

The deregulation of Irish broadcasting in the late 1980s dismantled RTE's airwaves monopoly and was created to create choice but as the old adage goes 'its more about the survival of the fittest' leading to consolidation and restricted choice. The choice has become stagnant, even the arrival of a new station like UTV Ireland fails to ignite the market but in terms of viewers choice and advertisers. Ireland is left with a State monolith and three smaller monopolies. This stagnation has led to an acceptance by the public, regulators and legislators that money talks whether it's the sale of broadcasting outlets or the carve up of advertising revenue. The viewers and the listener are the casualties.

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