Rob Brown's Column

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The Independent Online
Tomorrow is St Patrick's Day and, for once, you won't have to be within range of an RTE transmitter to view the parade in Dublin commemorating Ireland's patron saint. You can watch it anywhere in the world, if you are wired to the Internet and possess a decent modem.

The Irish Times is justifiably proud of making the first "Webcast"; transmission of Paddy's Parade from Irish capital. But the technology manager of its Internet service has been careful to warn techies that they can only expect to receive broadcast quality pictures if they have a fast Internet connection. If their modem is slow, the images will be somewhat jerky. Even those with a fast connection will hear only the background noise. There will be no running commentary.

Still, this pioneering initiative by Ireland's most prestigious newspaper powerfully demonstrates how the traditional barriers between the print and electronic media are being smashed by the communications revolution. In the digital age, broadcasters are now facing something which they were shielded from by Spectrum scarcity on the old analogue system - real competition.

The people running RTE, Ireland's public broadcasting service, Radio Telefis Eireann, would claim that they have been facing an onslaught for some considerable time. Ireland entered the multi channel era long before Britain, a high number of households in Dublin and Cork were cabled when the first satellite dishes were just starting to sprout on breeze blocks in Birmingham.

BSkyB cottoned on to this some time back and has always taken the Southern Irish market seriously. Live coverage of Premier League football has proven a powerful battering ram into those households whose inhabitants are more passionate about Manchester United than a United Ireland.

RTE has managed to withstand this extra terrestrial invasion by gripping on to the rights for live coverage of sporting events which involve the Irish in international competition. At least it has up to now. Sky has secured exclusive live rights to the forthcoming England/Ireland rugby match at Twickenham. RTE will have to make do with deferred coverage after the game ends.

This is an unprecedented set back not just for the public broadcaster but for Irish rugby fans, who could rely on live coverage of Ireland's Five Nations Championship games for the last 30 years on plain old terrestrial TV. The only people who will benefit from this move are Rupert Murdoch and landlords of Irish pubs and clubs which possess satellite TV.

Alas, there seems little prospect of St Patrick returning before 4 April to banish the sneaks of BSkyB from the island. RTE will also have to learn to deal with the emergence of another serpent in what used to be its broadcast Eden.

From the autumn, it will face direct domestic competition from a new terrestrial outfit called TV3. This venture has taken years to get off the ground but it is now powerfully backed by CanWest Global, a fast merging media empire which can call upon vast reserves to mount a major challenge to RTE, as it has already to dominate broadcasters in Australia and New Zealand.

It's impact has already been felt in Ireland. RTE's bosses are bracing themselves to shell out pounds 4m extra to acquire programmes this year as it faces competition for transmission rights from a rival domestic bidder. Good news for the sellers of Australian soaps and the hawkers of Hollywood movies, but a grim development for RTE's own programme makers, who will inevitably have their budget squeezed

RTE's director general Bob Collins knows that he and his management team are in for a difficult time. As he showed in a recent conference hosted by the Voice of the Viewers and Listeners in London, Collins is an eloquent advocate of the continued need for public service broadcasters committed to National communities as opposed to global media conglomerates bent only on expanding their own bottom line.

But even he would have to acknowledge that RTE could be doing with some more competition in its own back yard. Monopoly is never healthy in any creative sphere. Producers, presenters and other performing artists should certainly welcome an alternative source of employment in the shape of TV3.

The late great Dermot Morgan could have done with that. Long before he shot to fame in this country as Father Ted, he had to endure a torturous relationship with RTE. Since his tragic and untimely death a few weeks ago, controversy has raged in the Irish press about whether or not his satirical show Scrap Saturday was scrapped for political reasons. RTE maintains that it was wound up only because Morgan was demanding too much money to make another series.

Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that Dermot Morgan would have been in a far stronger bargaining position had he been able to take his act to another rival broadcaster down the road. Instead, he had to take the immigrant boat to Britain to realise fully his comedic talents.

Competition is already proving a strong creative spur. RTE has already revamped one of its two channels Network 2 to appeal to a younger audience in anticipation of TV3.

But the battle between Ireland's three networks is likely to centre around far from glamorous factual programmes, game shows and the odd domestic soap. Both outfits will find it hard to muster resources to make sitcoms on a par with Channel 4's Father Ted or big budget dramas like the BBC's Ballykissangle. Although the digital revolution does promise to drive down production cost and thereby improve the economics of broadcasting for small countries, even the digital dividend won't totally end Irish Television's traditional dependence of the Brits.