A night in with Tara

The current hipness of all things Hibernian can only help Tara, the cable station 'with an Irish flavour' due to reach Britain next year. Non-ex-pats are welcome. Rob Brown reports
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The Independent Online
The next time you're slowly savouring a pint of stout in an Irish theme pub don't be surprised if the beer-mat or book of matches is emblazoned with the word "Tara". These are just two of the more minor marketing wheezes that will be deployed in the next year or so to trumpet the gradual roll- out of O'Telly in Britain.

Tara (which takes its name from the ancient seat of the Celtic kings) is often referred to as the new cable channel for Irish expats - but not by its bosses. They bill it as "the best of television from Ireland" or "a popular entertainment channel with an Irish flavour".

Tara, you see, is not intended for Irish eyes only. The station's whole business plan rests upon it cashing in on the current hipness of all things Hibernian and appealing to couch potatoes in this country who have barely heard of the Blarney Stone, far less kissed it.

Naturally a key target market will be the six to eight million people in Britain with strong Irish connections, and a mail-shot will be sent out to everyone with an Irish-sounding surname. "But we're also pitching for the general cable subscriber who is looking for quality offerings in the multi-channel universe," explains Cathal O'Doherty, Tara's marketing manager. A 45-year-old Dubliner who previously promoted BBC Radio 1, O'Doherty defines Tara in Mary Robinson-style rhetoric as "part of the modern, thrusting, booming new Ireland".

David Fitzgerald, the station's managing director, adds: "This isn't about inaccessible, obscure Celtic culture. It's modern, upbeat and classy."

The vast bulk of Tara's output will be supplied by Ireland's national broadcaster Radio Telefis Eireann. RTE - which has also chipped in 20 per cent of the equity - draws its income from both licence fees and advertising. Its annual programming budget is pounds 113m - not far off what Channel 5 plans to spend in its first year.

It produces everything from news and current affairs programmes to chat shows and dramas. One of its long-running soaps, Glenroe, is shot in Ballykissangel country, namely County Wicklow. Another, Fair City, is closer to EastEnders, being based in Dublin.

Tara has also raked through RTE's archives and dusted down an old drama series called Bracken, starring a strikingly youthful Gabriel Byrne.

While none of these can ever hope to match Coronation Street or Brookside in the ratings, Tara's scheduling strategists are hopeful that they could become compelling viewing for a sizeable number of cable subscribers the length and breadth of Britain.

The evidence to date is that it certainly won't be only Irish eyes that are smiling upon this shamrock-speckled station. In the West Country - where Tara was launched in November - it has actually been driving cable subscriptions for Telewest.

Its programming director, Ashley Faull, is so startled by its popularity in a part of the country not noted for heavy Irish immigration that he was even to be found last week spontaneously singing Tara's praises at the TV Show, a major industry gathering in Islington, the luvvieland of north London.

"We set this enterprise a fairly stiff target, but it is well on the way to reaching it due to quality programming and skillful marketing," said Faull.

Tara's management are even more encouraged by the West Country experience. "In the words of the old song, if we can make it there we can make it anywhere," says O'Doherty, who is hopeful that Tara will take off even more impressively in Coventry, a city with a relatively big Irish population, where it launched over the weekend.

But, apart from Hertfordshire and Bedforshire, where it should come on stream in May, Tara is still struggling to get cable carriage elsewhere in this country. Although much of this is down to factors beyond its control - massive corporate mergers that have put much of the cable operators in a state of suspended animation - Tara's marketing man confesses to some frustration.

"We still have to get through a number of the industry gatekeepers, so the main focus of our activity must be our talks with them," says O'Doherty, who remains confident that the venture - which is backed by the Denver- based cable giant UIH (United International Holdings) - will be available across Britain within the next 18 months and will eventually go global.

Although as calm and laid-back as any of his compatriots, he is clearly itching to deploy Tara's pounds 1m marketing budget in a bid to persuade everyone in Britain who has ever guzzled a Guinness or lusted after Liam Neeson to tune into Taran