Bubbles Hits: The future of music TV?

A channel with no ads playing pop round the clock. And all dreamt up by two lads barely out of their teens. Ed Caesar discovers how Bubbles Hits floated in
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The Independent Online

In December last year, James Hyland and Lee Walsh, two young Irishmen already making a name for themselves in the music industry, were watching MTV when they got angry. There wasn't enough music on the channel; there were too many entertainment programmes, and, if they flicked to another music channel all they saw were more adverts.

So they came up with a plan - their own music station. There would be no adverts, no interruptions, and music would play round the clock, every day of the week. In as little as eight months, that fit of pique has generated a bold new enterprise: on 14 August, Bubble Hits, a channel funded purely by sponsorship and text revenue, launches free in Ireland and on Sky in the UK.

Hyland is only 23, and Walsh only 22, which is a mite younger than your average television mogul. As Hyland sits at the boardroom table of a central London office, talking in his high-speed Cork patter, it is clear he is no ordinary twentysomething.

Hyland's career began at the age of 12, when he started his own pirate radio programme, Happiness FM, in his home town of Michelstown, Co Cork. Such was the popularity of Happiness FM that he was soon DJing every night of the week in pubs and clubs up and down the county. "I just wasn't interested in school," he says. "So I was always out on the road. My dad used to drive me around and deal with the whole money side of things."

When he was finally able to leave school, at 16, Hyland immediately found work with a local radio station, Tipp FM. Increasingly, though, he was interested in concert promotion, and at 17, he signed a contract with Atomic Kitten to come and play a one-off concert in Cork. They came, but it was a disaster. The venue had no public transport links; the band lost their luggage; the crowd was disappointing. Hyland's newly formed Noodle Promotions lost €80,000.

"I don't see it as a loss," says Hyland. "No one could teach me all that I learned in that one experience." Hyland learned fast, because the next year he brought pop acts such as Coolio, Dannii Minogue, The Proclaimers and Kool and the Gang to the festival in Michelstown. For a town with a population of 4,000 people, it was quite a shock - most people saw the posters and thought they were getting tribute acts - and the festival generated 80,000 visitors over a weekend.

It was during this period that Hyland met Walsh, who at the time was working for a security company. When Hyland moved to Dublin two years later to concentrate on audio production and concert promotion, the first person he rang was Walsh. They ended up not only sharing a flat, but also forming a limited company, Creative Sounds, which would house their two big projects - the production outfit Pro Audio Images and their music channel Bubble Hits.

"We were losing money every day when we started," recalls Hyland. "Everyone was telling us we were too young. Eventually we had a meeting with Jamster, who are one of the world's largest TV advertisers. And we said to them, what can we do for you. And they said, well, what can you do. They gave us our first order for £8,000. That was huge back then."

One of their first commissions was to provide the voiceovers for Jamster's adverts for a new product they were testing called Crazy Frog. That shrill amphibian has since escaped Britain and Ireland to irritate adults in 29 countries, making Pro Audio Images a substantial sum of cash. It is with this Crazy Frog cash that Bubble Hits has been funded.

"We haven't taken a penny off anyone to fund [Bubble Hits]," says Hyland. "It's a great position to be in, because if it doesn't go to plan, there's less damage involved. But I'm prepared to go hell for leather to make it work."

What he and his partner have come up with is a strategy, both to limit costs, and to engage the viewer. The focus is on music videos - cheap to air, and requiring minimal manpower to organise - and punchy, three-minute segments of interviews with acts backstage or on the road. There will be no sit-down interviews in studios ("studios are boring"), and there will be no costly entertainment programmes ("really boring"). By texting, or by hitting the Bubble Hits website, viewers will decide what they want to hear.

Given Hyland and Walsh's attitude to programming, it's no surprise that they have spent not one penny on advertising their new channel. Instead they have conducted vox pops, shoe-horned themselves and their semi-famous presenters (Irish model Glenna Gilson, ex-EastEnder Chris Parker) into the press, and relied on word of mouth to get the news out there.

"We don't know how many viewers we're going to have," says Hyland. "Personally, I think it's going to be huge, but we don't know that. And there are a lot of companies who can't get into the market we're now into. Mobile phone companies are spending so many millions on adverts, but their stuff isn't being seen."

Proof that the big boys are looking in Bubble Hits' direction came last week when MTV announced a new channel called Flux, a "multi-platform interactive entertainment experience" that "gives viewers control". It can only give the young men confidence.

"People have told us that we're being stupid," says Hyland, "But if someone said to me I could make £20m a year, and have commercial breaks on my channel, or I could make a million quid a year, have a really successful channel, I'll take the million quid."