Irish skies aren’t smiling 

1 March 2002 tbs.pm/1806

Imagine sitting down, turning on your TV, and finding out that all your favourite channels have suddenly disappeared, after 40 years of happy viewing.

To most people who sign-up with Sky Digital in the Republic of Ireland, this is exactly how they feel.

RTE

From its inception in December 1961, Radio Telefis Éireann, RTÉ, has always had competition. The BBC and Ulster Television had been widely available to an eager southern audience for a few years, and so the fledgling Irish state broadcaster already had an audience to win over.

This is something RTÉ had to contend with, and it has done so with aplomb. In the 1970s, it was possible to get UK channels from the Preseli or Divis transmitters quite easily with the right amount of fancy ironmongery, but in some areas of Dublin, it was just beyond the coverage.

Cable television was the answer, and around then, RTÉ setup a company to manage the new cable technology. RTÉ Relays and another company, Phoenix Relays, operated the cable systems, which provided crystal clear TV to people in the tower blocks and new estates. It didn’t take long for the rest of the city to become cabled up. Also added to the line-up were the UK channels, BBC 1, BBC 2, and UTV.

As the 80s and 90s wore on, as the companies became more organised, as part of the subscription to the cable company, the customer was also making a rights payment to these broadcasters. Consolidation occurred too.

Phoenix and RTE Relays merged into Cablelink, who then were bought by NTL and the situation remained the same, but with they addition of some channels available on cable only, such as MTV, TV5 (French channel) and Super Channel, with the UK’s Channel 4 also being added.

Cable systems with all these channels sprung up in nearly every large town in Ireland, mostly supplied by Chorus, who were Irish Multichannel and Cable Management Ireland before 1999. Illegal “deflector” systems also appeared, relaying channels to more remote areas. People can now see BBC 1 Northern Ireland in Cork and Kerry; way beyond what is possible with an off-air aerial.

Enter the new kid on the block, Sky Digital. From the start in the UK, BBC 1, BBC 2, Channel 4 and Channel 5 were there, on the new digital satellite system. Eager to get this new technology, I was very interested in signing up. “Pin sharp reception of the main UK terrestrial channels, this is what I’ve been waiting for!” And, to a certain extent I still am.

As it was heavily advertised in the UK, imagine my disgust and outrage that the UK terrestrials were blocked from the Irish Electronic Programme Guide (EPG).

Why was this? We’ve been watching them before for many years on the existing analogue platforms, so why are they not available? Time to do some investigating…

The cable companies have the agreements in place to rebroadcast the UK terrestrial channels, but this is something BSkyB didn’t have at the start.

In September 2000, Sky set out on a marketing blitz, the first of its kind in the Republic, to get new customers and bring Digital TV to the Irish masses.

In just over 18 months, Sky had gone from a few hundred to well over 200,000 customers, through its offers of free set-top digiboxes and £50 (now €75) installation. But there was still no sign of the UK terrestrials.

In April 2001, miracle of miracles, BBC 1 NI and BBC 2 NI appeared on the Irish EPG. Sky had concluded negotiations with BBC Worldwide, the BBC’s commercial arm, and made available the main BBC networks to viewers in the Republic, with those who had a “Family Pack” subscription.

It was great news, but the additional services, like BBC News 24 were still missing. A lot of people were thinking of cutting their cable subscription, as they only kept it for the UK terrestrials.

But UTV was included in the stand-off with the rest of the ITV network with Sky, and Channel 4 still didn’t look like budging. Channel 5 refused outright to go on any system in Ireland, cable or satellite, so at least it was black and white with them.

The ultimate tease for the Irish Sky Digital customer came when ITV started testing in November 2001. For the first time, you could watch all the ITV regions, from one TV, by tuning into the “Other Channels” feature of the Sky Digibox. UTV was there, and a lot of people who knew how to tune it in were happy.

Most people thought, “It’s not on the EPG, but it’s as close as it can be. We can still watch it so we can get rid of the cable”. But in early January 2002, disaster struck. All ITV regions were blocked on Irish boxes.

Why did this happen? ITV said in a press release that they only had a licence to broadcast to the UK, and were closing this loophole. This didn’t make any sense, as we have been watching UTV on cable for years.

So who are blocking the channels, BBC? Channel 4? The cable companies? Sky themselves? After several correspondences with all parties, I am still none the wiser. The extra BBC channels, BBC Choice, BBC 4, BBC News 24, CBBC, CBeebies and some radio services are still blocked.

As the BBC push for digital take-up and advertise more about their digital only channels, we as Irish viewers will notice more and more gaping holes in our schedules. UTV are very sorry that we can’t see their channel.

They make a lot of money from sourcing advertising from the Republic. But as Granada, the biggest company in ITV are major shareholders in TV3, the Irish third channel, a channel that duplicates a lot of ITV’s output, I feel that it will be some time before it appears.

As the decision was a network one, I feel UTV maybe frozen out in the cold. Channel 4’s position should be more clear-cut. As Big Brother was extensively advertised in Dublin last summer, when Brian Dowling won, it baffles me that they are not on Sky Digital here. They remain pretty much silent.

Some people might say that we shouldn’t be watching them, as we don’t pay a licence fee to watch these channels, or at least they should be able to watch RTÉ in the UK.

We do pay our service providers to have the privilege of watching these channels, as rights payments are included in our subscription.

I would like the rest of the UK to watch RTÉ, not only because it would be fair, but also as its product stands up very well against the best the British has to offer.

But as there are so many rights issues, especially regarding American programmes, as RTÉ get to show these before the likes of Channel 4 and E4, this, I feel, won’t happen.

A milestone will occur in late April, when RTÉ 1, Network 2 and TG4 appear on Irish Sky Digital boxes, both North and South. In the UK, you will be able to hear RTÉ Radio 1, 2fm, Lyric FM and Raidio na Gaeltachta in the clear.

This will be the first time all of RTÉ’s services will appear on satellite. Let’s hope the BBC at least reciprocate and make all the BBC Radio stations appear on the EPG.

Digital technology has given the broadcasters what couldn’t be achieved before with analogue reception; the control over where they broadcast to, right down to your house number. In Ireland’s case, it can be done to a whole country.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Damien Cahill Contact More by me

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