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Sir Bob lets off a small Atomic bomb

Bob Geldof doesn't think much of MTV, so he has decided to launch his own music channel, Atomic TV. It's been welcomed across Europe - but not, so far in his native land, says Michael Foley

Bob Geldof once wrote a song, "Banana Republic", about his native Ireland complete with the description "septic isle", so it's hardly surprising that he has had problems getting a cable music channel on air there.

Geldof's Planet 24 media company is in the process of launching Atomic TV, a pop music channel. Unlike MTV, which is global and makes a virtue of selling the same pop culture to North America and North Africa, Atomic celebrates the local.

It is already up and running in Poland and will begin broadcasting in Romania shortly, with talks taking place in other European countries. Ireland is next on the list to receive the channel.

In a letter to the Irish broadcasting regulator, the Independent Radio and Television Commission (IRTC), Geldof outlined what he meant by an Irish local music channel. The content of Atomic TV in Ireland would be 40 per cent Irish and 60 per cent international music. It would offer link ups with local media, cover both the large and the smaller gigs and be a major boost for the local music industry (a format that could be changed for any market, be it England, Scotland, Italy or France). In another letter to the Irish Minister responsible for Broadcasting, Sheila de Valera, Geldof said: "We are proposing Irish voices, Irish boys and girls, English and Irish language, Irish bands, an Irish company using Irish cable (not in a Rupert Murdoch stranglehold), Irish investment and inward investment, Irish management, ownership and staff."

MTV, says Geldof, was predicated on the "false notion that there exists a global youth uni-culture largely articulated through pop music. However, whenever a unique culture has been offered an alternative in which that culture is reflected back to it, then that service has succeeded. Examples include VIVA in Germany and Atomic in Poland."

Geldof maintains that MTV's figures are "hopelessly bad" and reflect a narrow playlist, doing nothing for smaller groups, with no national input from any of its broadcast countries. Planet 24 cites the experience of new entrants into the music television market which are beating MTV, including TMS in Holland, Much Music in Canada, Channel V in India and South East Asia and VIVA in Germany. In the past week it has been reported that MTV has been taken off the Hague cable system in Holland.

MTV, he maintains, was founded on the "ill-founded logic that someone, for example in Sweden, will be happy to watch a young Swedish person speaking bad English and showing videos. They also believe that an English audience would be happy to view the same. What, in fact, the Swedes are wondering is why isn't this person speaking Swedish, while the English are puzzled as to why they have to watch a Swede speaking incomprehensible nonsense."

Ireland offers a wonderful opportunity for Geldof. Not only is he one of Ireland's most famous people but, more importantly, in terms of business Ireland is one of Europe's most heavily cabled countries. Cablelink, the company Geldof has been talking and which has expressed an interest, reaches 330,000 homes and is one of the ten biggest cable operations in Europe.

Notwithstanding the proposition that Atomic would be broadcast in both English and Irish, Atomic could be relayed elsewhere, possibly piggybacking on existing cable services in Britain where there are large young Irish communities, or even in the US or Australia.

The irony for Geldof is that the response to his attempts to invest in Ireland has been less than wholehearted. He was given an unofficial nod of approval from the Government Department that deals with broadcasting last May. Since then there has been a change of Government. He wrote to the new Minister in August and has had no response at all. Cablelink has also heard nothing since it applied for a change in the terms of its licence last May, to enable it to broadcast Atomic.

In his attempt to launch a television channel in his own country, Geldof faces broadcasting legislation that is in a mess and hopelessly outdated. Its definition of broadcasting does not include mention of cable or satellite, as it goes back to 1960. Recent legislation was designed for specific tasks, such as the establishment of local radio eight years ago and the licensing of one commercial television company.

The outgoing Government had planned to update the legislation and published the heads of a Bill, but its plans for broadcasting died when it failed to be re-elected earlier this year. The feeling seems to be: why cannot Geldof just go away and come back some other time when the Government actually gets around to updating the legislation?

The regulator, the IRTC, has no role in cable television, but it voiced an opinion, privately, to Geldof, telling him it opposed Atomic because it feared it would take revenue from the advertising pot while it was in talks with a consortium that has been granted a national commercial television fanchise. This was not a principled objection, it was just that the timing was all wrong, according to one source.

Geldof, not one to sit around patiently, is now proposing circumventing Irish legislation. Atomic can be made in Ireland but beamed from London via satellite. Planet 24 is confident it will get the permission of the ITC. It can then be relayed by cable in Ireland without the permission of the Irish Government under the terms of the EU Television directive, as anything that is broadcast legally in one EU member state can be received in another.

The story broke in The Irish Times and has been followed up in other media. One of the major Internet providers, Indigo, has launched a "Support Atomic TV" Website, Geldof has argued with the chief executive of the IRTC on local radio and last week he met Ms de Valera. As a result she has agreed to discuss the matter with the IRTC.

As for Geldof himself, he says he wished there were such a channel when the Boomtown Rats started 20 years ago, "we might not have had to leave Ireland." Even with all the changes over the past two decades, "has anything changed?" he asks.

Michael Foley is Media Correspondent with The Irish Times.