Okay, so they’re trying to strip €41m in ‘fat’ off their annual cost base (and God forbid their ‘top stars’ should forego any more than a 15% pay cut under extreme duress) but could RTE not have done a bit better than nightly highlights from the European Indoor Athletics Championships?
The national broadcaster’s coverage of track & field has been pretty abysmal for years now. Only Sonia O’Sullivan’s exploits in the 1990s saved the sport from disappearing from our screens altogether. However, the new generation of underappreciated Irish athletes seem to be running up against a broadcasting brick wall much of the time.
Fair dues, RTÉ does soccer and rugby really well. Its Gaelic Games output could be a lot better for my licence fee money, but at least its comprehensive, if often cringeworthy.
However, minority sports are by and large neglected; even if multiples more Irish people are actively involved and interested in athletics than rugby. At best the airtime athletics gets is hit and miss, more often the latter, as was the case last weekend when the Irish team were taking on Europe’s finest in Turin.
Obviously the decision was taken that the Irish competitors’ prospects were slim enough so as not to warrant buying the live TV rights. So they went halfway, taking a chance on our athletes’ chances not being up to much, and sending George Hamilton over to commentate just in case.
As it happened ‘team green’ did extremely well. Two bronze medals and a few close-run things, plus some stellar individual performances, such as Waterford long jumper Kelly Proper’s demolition of her own Irish record in Friday’s qualifiers.
On Saturday, as the Ferrybank AC star was being introduced along with her fellow finalists on BBC2, RTÉ were showing ‘Murder She Wrote’ on one channel and ‘Columbo’ on the other. (That bloody thing has been repeated so often I reckon the monks in Mount Melleray could tell you every plotline of every episode.)
They also missed the ‘world’s fastest white man’, Paul Hession, missing out on by one place on a spot in the 60m sprint final in a heat won by DRUG CHEAT Dwain Chambers (my emphasis) and Róisín McGettigan’s brave 4th in the 1500m.
On Sunday, as Mary Cullen was winning 3000m bronze, RTÉ1 viewers were treated to the usual afternoon nap-inducing matinee and another ‘Columbo’ movie on 2 (must be Peter Falk season).
When you consider the huge amounts of money the station’s bosses spend on soccer rights in particular – would anyone object to the Champions League being held in abeyance until it reaches the knock-out stages; or the complete avoidance of many National League matches? – there must be a case for making live coverage of certain big athletics events a matter of policy.
The exposure these type of championships give an up-and-coming athlete can, in some instances, make or break their careers, which they already do well to sustain on the fairly meagre funding they receive from the Irish Sports Council. (Small sums which, as Eamon Sweeney noted in the Sunday Indo, are coming under increasing scrutiny by the ‘value-for-money’ watchdogs in Martin Cullen’s high-flying department.)
With sponsors increasingly hard to come by, every little bit of publicity helps develop your talent, and your marketability.
Of the 18-strong team sent to Turin, contrary to those who argue that Ireland should specialise in a restricted number of disciplines, 16 either set PBs or broke national records, qualified for later rounds, reached finals or won medals.
It was the youngest Irish team sent to a foreign track and field, and by and large they individually and collectively punched above their weight. Pity RTE isn’t as supportive as it should be.
And don’t give us that about commercial imperatives holding sway. Audience-reach might be all-important with advertisers, but something tells me there are not too many vying for the Jessica Fletcher slots.