|Hugh Oram talks to Willie Fagan who has quit Chorus for a new post in the Middle East|
For Willie Fagan in his new job one of the main TV channels where he is now stationed in the Middle East is Al-Jazeera, quite a change from RTE or TV3. Fagan, who most recently was head of legal, regulatory and public affairs at Chorus and before that Director of Consumer Affairs, has gone to Qatar as that country's first ever telecoms regulator.
Fagan leaves behind a TV industry in Ireland that he considers to be in good shape, but faces many challenges in the future. He says that Ireland, along with the UK, has some of the highest quality TV programming in the world, a contrast with the US, where channel after channel is filled with endless repeats.
Fagan believes Irish TV is high quality, especially RTE. TG4 is likewise, but subsidised, and many people without any Irish are watching it. As for TV3… well, as he says “you can argue about that.” But in a short time, it has reversed the position of UTV 'down here'.
TV3 is also at a crossroads in its existence. City Channel on the NTL digital platform in Dublin is doing “reasonably well” and now founder David Harvey has been given the go-ahead by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (BCI) to proceed with rollouts in Galway and Waterford.
Setanta is moving ahead well and it is already presenting a serious challenge to RTE, especially with its bidding for rights such as the Rugby World Cup. The new start-up, Channel 6, is set to be entirely entertainment and a totally money-making enterprise.
In the case of the two cable companies, Chorus and NTL, these are now both owned by Liberty and, in time, it is likely that these services will be merged, sooner rather than later, to form a single cable operation, under the UGC banner.
In time, Fagan says, common branding and common prices for subscribers could become reality. Rupert Murdoch's Sky Digital is still doing very well and has a good business model, a vertical integration of content and distribution and it has good contacts with Hollywood”.
Sky will soon launch Ireland's first High Definition Television(HDTV) service. With HDTV, the picture clarity and detail is five times what it is with conventional TV, bringing obvious benefits for wild life, sports and other programming where the interest is in the fine detail. As for the Digital Terrestial Television (DTT) trial due to start this summer, Fagan is sceptical and he wonders whether we will ever see DTT in Ireland as DTT is coming very late to the Irish market. Whether there is any need for it at all at this stage is a moot point.
After all, Sky subscribers are on digital and a growing proportion of Chorus and NTL subscribers have made the change. In the UK, the experience has been that digital does not equate to better picture quality, just more and more channels for viewers.
The introduction of HDTV could mark the next big step, rather than the race to convert from analogue to digital. Lots of new screen technology is coming down the line too, making TV sets bigger and flatter. Traditionally, TV screens show much less of the gamut of colour than cinema screens, but this should improve considerably with the advent of new screen technology over the next few years.
One future development could be a TV set like a roller blind, where you just unroll it when you want to view. TV faces considerable pressure from the changing nature of TV distribution.
A traditional TV company transmitted its programmes over the airwaves from conventional transmitters. These days, cable and satellite are commonplace. Online TV could change the model of TV distribution. Mobile TV is also due to take off allowing consumers to watch live TV on their mobile phones or other mobile devices. But it is highly unlikely people will watch a full-length movie on their mobile.
Fagan predicts that technical developments will continue apace. “Every time you go into an electrical shop, there seems to be some new portable device for watching TV. It's up to cable companies and broadcasters to meet the challenges”.
Already, the internet and DVDs is cutting into the amount of time younger people spend watching TV. The danger for advertisers is that TV could become a medium for an almost entirely older audience.
Fagan said that provided TV broadcasters offer good value for money and quality content, survival will not be an issue. In terms of regulating content, that is a debate which belongs to another era and broadcasters will go to where regulation is the lightest.
“Most parents are perfectly capable of doing their own regulation,” Fagan said. “Perhaps we should have a walled garden in TV for kids?” He points out that one of the reasons why the Internet is doing so well is precisely because it is not regulated.
Fagan hopes that the broadcasting funds being released this year will be used by a wide variety of broadcasters and programme makers and that it will not all be channelled into RTE.
Although no longer connected with Chorus, Fagan will keep a close eye on developments in Irish TV during his three-year contract in tax-free Qatar, where his salary is said to be in the region of €300,000.
These days when Fagan is sitting back watching TV in the evening at his apartment in the Four Seasons hotel in Doha, it will be some light relief in the form of Al-Jazeera's equivalent of Fair City.