Blarney on Tap
By Kate Bulkley
3 December 2001
From pirate radio DJ to the 'Irish Chris Evans', Andy Ruane has now set his sights on the net, says Kate Bulkley
There may be a bit of the showman in almost every Irishman, but Andy Ruane is in a class of his own. This one-time pirate radio DJ has hustled and jived his way to the upper echelons of Ireland's media scene over the past 25 years with a mixture of talent and sheer red-headed persistence. Now he's attempting to rise to another level, but this time using the internet as his vehicle and the global audience as his stage.
Having traded up from being a prime-time celebrity on Irish television and radio, pony-tailed Ruane is a big-time TV entrepreneur in his homeland and beyond, having hurdled Ireland's entertainment borders with a game show called The Lyrics Board that has sold in 20 countries and is currently running in 10. The 40-year-old owns a major Irish television production company and post-production house and is, by his own estimation, "doing very well" financially.
Ruane's public profile in the UK, however, is a far cry from his description of himself as the "Chris Evans of Ireland". The moniker is even greeted with a chuckle by a long-time business partner and friend who says Ruane is perhaps more of a Steve Wright than Evans. "Andy was never that anarchic. He was always more Mr Pop. He never set out to challenge the establishment," says ex-BBC producer Philip Kampff.
The entrepreneur may not have challenged the establishment as a pop music presenter, but he seems drawn to taking business risks. His latest project, a 24-hour internet TV channel that targets the 70m or so Irish outside of Ireland, is certainly in that category, Given the vagaries of making money on the net, Irelandlivetelevision.tv stands to be his biggest gamble so far.
He admits that the net-delivered service "won't be cheap" at a launch cost of between IŁ3.5 and IŁ5m, but he optimistically believes that his TV production skills and assets and the Irish-abroad niche will attract enough advertising to let the service break even after a year. "Video will drive the web," says Ruane, over lunch in London's Clerkenwell, the home of many - often defunct or struggling - web firms. "I'm not going into something that doesn't have a future. More than my present business, which is TV, this is a bigger picture. And as a serial entrepreneur I see it there for the taking. Not everyone could do Irish television on the web, but I'm Irish and I know what Irish people want."
Irelandlivetelevision.tv has been in tests since early this year and goes live today. To get it you must download the media player from Real Networks (for the moment the rival player from Microsoft won't work) on to your PC, which with a broadband connection takes a few minutes. Ruane, who on the telephone talked me through setting up my own computer to get the service while I was interviewing him, has jumped into this latest project with his customary gusto and can talk with the best of them about the wonders of streaming technology on the net. So what is this TV on the PC experience going to be like, I ask. "You're gonna be watching [an Irish] Sky TV in a minute," he enthused. "I've built a TV network in six months."
He is not alone in identifying the nirvana of using the net as a cheap global TV distribution system. Why rent satellites or play by local TV broadcasting rules when the internet lets anyone, anywhere log in? Of course plenty of sites have streaming video content and all the major news sites, from Sky to CNN, include video, but a robust revenue model has been, to say the least, elusive. In October 2001 the CNN.com and BBC. co.uk news sites together attracted 3,348,000 unique visitors from the UK but only 147,000 took the time to view video clips on the sites, according to Jupiter MMXI's web research. Part of the problem is the connection speed to the web. Without a broadband connection, streamed media is slow and the picture tends to jerk and freeze up.
That there is an appetite for compelling streamed content was proved on September 11, as a stunning 250,000 simultaneous video streams were delivered to people watching the terrorist strikes on their PCs. Media streaming company Akamai reckons that 150m video streams were delivered that day. Where the Gulf War raised the global profile of CNN, the recent terrorist attacks in the US happened at a time of day when many people were at their offices with no TV within reach and they turned to the net. Ruane's principal target for irelandlivetelevision.tv is the US, because not only do an estimated 23m first generation Irish live there, but the rollout of broadband connections is moving at a much faster pace in the US than in the UK or continental Europe.
But will an Irish TV on the web service be attractive enough to bring in advertisers or, at some point in the future, paid subscriptions? Certainly the track record of other TV on the web services does not bode well. Several ambitious services such as Pseudo.com in the US and Canalweb in France both launched with many fanfares, but failed to attract enough of an audience to stay in business. "You don't see TV channels broadcasting on the web unless like CNN as a small part of a bigger text-based service," says Olivier Beauvillain, a media analyst for Web rating company Jupiter MMXI. "There's a good reason for this. It's expensive and there is not a strong business model behind it in terms of advertising. And we see that people are not really ready to pay for content."
Internet advertising this year, like TV advertising, is flat or falling, depending on the website. Whereas the amount of web advertising doubled in 2000, Jupiter only sees it starting to grow again in 2002-2003 and then only by 20% or so a year.
Admitting that he is giving away ad time as part of the launch marketing of the service, Ruane insists that the target Irish market and the unique mix of news, entertainment and information will get people to log on and make advertisers willing to start paying. The service will also run traditional TV ads between the news and other programmes, rather than the banner and button advertising typical of most websites. The blarney merchant also plans to play on Irish pride. "The Smurfit company is not going to advertise in order to sell their paper boxes," says Ruane. "But they will runs ads because this is an Irish service." Ruane is quick to add that he hasn't talked to Smurfit yet, but you get the feeling that he has no concerns about doing the deal.
Ruane's business is no AOL Time Warner, but his production company called Like it, Love it and his post- production house, Anner Media, are providing the talent and infrastructure for the fledgling web service at reduced costs. He also plans to try to sell the entertainment and information programming created for the service to regular TV broadcasters. Real Networks is going to help support the growth of Irelandlivetelevision.tv by linking what it charges for its technology to the number of users, which is designed to keep costs in line with growth. Real will also advertise the new service on its Realguide.com site.
Ruane certainly has his work cut out for him, but it's the kind of challenge he relishes. "He's a brilliant hustler, you know, in the greatest sense of the word," says Philip Kampff who first cast him back in the late 1980s as the presenter for a live pop music TV show called Scratch Saturday and later, the two worked together to create The Lyrics Board.
So can Irish blarney make niche TV on the web can work? David Lyle, the head of Entertainment for Fremantle Media, which distributes Ruane's TV formats, is a believer. "If passion counts for anything, I'm surprised that Andy doesn't have The Lyrics Board on every network around the world."
It's a large step from making successful international TV formats to constructing a working web television service, but an ex-pirate radio DJ with bundles of passion and unlimited self-belief might just be the man to do it.