TG4's new frontier: The path to An Klondike's success

As the station prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a rake of IFTAs and international appeal...

TG4's new frontier: The path to An Klondike's success

Julian Black Antelope as Skookum Jim in An Klondike Photo: TG4

"An té nach bhfuil láidir ní folair dó a bheith glic".

 An old Irish saying that, in English, means whoever is not strong must be clever, it is also a line that Pádhraic Ó Ciardha, deputy chief executive of TG4, points to as something of a guiding principle at his station.

The Irish language TV channel turns 20 this Hallowe'en – or should that be Oíche Shamhna – and, despite new reports that fewer and fewer students have been choosing to learn the native tongue over the last decade and frequent claims that the language is slipping into irrelevance, TG4 is far from limping along as a niche concern. In fact, it's thriving in terms of original content and drawing in people that will happily tackle subtitles to enjoy the programming.

The root of its success lies in that aforementioned phrase; an emphasis placed on being agile and clever, a devotion to unearthing new talent, and a team with a track record for spotting it and letting it shine.

Another motto – another eye.

"'Súil Eile' is not just about the content," says Ó Ciardha, "But it's about the way in which we're growing a sector in partnership. The publisher-broadcaster model that we adopted 20 years ago [originally as Teilifís na Gaeilge] was then an innovation. 

"Only Channel 4 was doing it in these islands, and that's the Welsh S4C as well. By definition, it makes for a different relationship between the broadcaster and the content creator. We are not the content creators; we have a partnership with the production sector".

It's a model that has been reaping dividends in recent years. While ever-present soap Ros Na Rún continues to rumble along with its loyal following, the station has also been charming the unconverted with its drama output of late.

Crime has been paying, with Corp + Anam scoring big with viewers over two seasons,and the five-part An Bronntanas earning plaudits. Its latest success wasn't even set on Irish shores, even if it was shot here.

 

An Klondike, an ambitious four-part Western that followed three brothers chasing the Gold Rush of the late 1890s and bringing their language to the Yukon in north-western Canada in the process, tested the limits of how far the station – with its independent production partner – could go in terms of expansive settings, bold creativity and big budgets. The really clever bit was substituting Canada for the equally majestic (and aesthetically close) scenery of Connemara.

While its viewership of 50,000 per episode when it aired last September was 17 times smaller than RTÉ's far less impressive Charlie, TG4 knew what the ABÚ Media production could do for the station's prestige, and that it could have legs away from the small screens of Ireland.

Real domestic vindication came last month when the show picked up four Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA) awards, including the gong for Best Drama.

With a second series filming this summer, creator Dathaí Keane has welcomed the positive buzz the IFTAs can generate.

"It brings greater recognition and makes people more aware of the project. You put such work into creating these programmes that you really want there to be an audience for them. It's another battle then to try and bring people to that project and make people aware of it.

"Particularly winning Best Drama Series will hopefully raise the awareness of the entire series and set us up nicely where we're actually going to film series two this summer. So by the time we go to broadcast that, I think people will be well primed to the idea and maybe they can catch up.

"The TV landscape has changed so much that broadcast is only one of your avenues. You can always catch up on these programmes on players and online".

You could also catch An Klondike packaged in feature-length form in cinemas for a brief run and on a festival tour at home and abroad. The series itself even ventured across the Irish Sea when it was bought by Netflix late last year, with the Gaeilge dubbed into English and the new title of Dominion Creek. Returning it to its fictional spiritual home, a deal earlier this year saw Acorn TV distributing Dominion Creek in North America.

It seemed a natural progression for Keane.

"I always intended this to be playing internationally," he says. "I also wanted to be able to use what I had on my doorstep in terms of the west of Ireland. The landscape out here is spectacular and I think more and more international crews are discovering that; we're now going to have Star Wars filming in three locations in Ireland this year.

"So I knew that we could tap into that and that doesn't cost a penny.

“We have the hills of Connemara, the beautiful rugged terrain out there. We could really use that as our trump card and it doesn't cost us very much to go out and film these locations.

"I knew that would be something that would appeal to international audiences. People like to see these landscapes, it's a big part of these high-end TV dramas that are coming out".

Seán T Ó Meallaigh, Dara Devaney & Owen McDonnell as the Connolly Brothers, in An Klondike

Ó Ciardha agrees.

“We could see the economic benefits to the area in terms of the jobs constructing the site and the set. And we were so lucky to have a disused mine available for the project! On the aesthetic of it, it has to be realistic. To take a story where it was credible that you'd have three Connemara brothers speaking Irish with each other and other people in The Klondike... To be able to do all of that, given the economics and the cost involved, less than 35 miles from TG4 headquarters was really agile and clever".

"You're either motivated by fear or faith"

He was similarly confident that An Klondike would travel.

“We're 20 years on the air this year and we have some of the best commissioning editors on these islands. Their instincts and their experience come into play... And we're global. We're not just a TV station broadcasting in our own jurisdiction.

"Its international appeal was obvious from the setting of the story but also the production values involved. And the track record of Dathaí and his colleagues".

The language barrier can now be seen as more of a draw than a barrier for overseas viewers at a time when the world has fallen for a host of subtitled dramatic gems, including Borgen, The Killing and The Bridge.

"We've all seen the Nordic-Scandi dramas that have come in and people are now lording the fact that they're watching subtitled content! Our content has been subtitled since the beginning. It’s now an attraction...

"So we see the world as our stage in that sense without ever losing site of what our focus is; serving an audience in Ireland with Irish language content”.

Whilst Keane's decision to stay at home was ingenious cost-cutting with no quality spared, the premise still required Keane and crew to construct a real Galway village with a frontier feel from nothing. 

Ó Ciardha notes that "a project of this scale just can't happen out of TG4's own pocket. We have to ensure and try to get multi-funding for it. In this case, the [Broadcasting Authority of Ireland] were able to come onboard".

In the end, Keane had close to €1.8 million to play around with to make his dream a reality. It's a far cry from the reported $10 million being pumped into every single episode of the new season of Game of Thrones, but still a huge sum. A daunting prospect for Dathaí?

"Not at all!” he says without missing a beat. "There’s a great dictum we talk about: you're either motivated by fear or faith.

"People will be aware of that. If people see that you have doubts yourself, then that becomes obvious and then people get worried about how you're going to handle it.

"You have to have ultimate faith in what you're doing".

For Keane, it was a no-brainer to approach TG4.

"They're more open to taking risks. They’re very good at backing new talent...

"Even from beginning of my career, someone like Mícheál O' Meallaigh [TG4's commissioning editor] hasn't batted an eyelid when I've come to him with an idea, be it a documentary or a Western that we're going to make in the west of Ireland.

"So there's a tremendous ability there to be able to locate the up-and-comers and give them a chance. Whereas some other broadcasters in Ireland might be a little bit more closed to that. You have to go off and prove yourself before you can go knocking on doors in other places".

"Risk-taking is part of the project"

Ó Ciardha recalls TG4 being more than happy to fling open the door to An Klondike despite the scale of the project.

"We have a long relationship with Dathaí and the company. We watched them grow and fostered them and nurtured them together. That's not to say that every idea they come in with will be a success. But this was a risk and risk-taking is part of the project.

"There are no certainties in broadcasting. A public service broadcaster like TG4? We see it as part of our function to take risks. There are significant amounts of public money involved, but there are significant rewards as well.

"When you look at the Klondike project from the first concept in Dathaí’s brain to the execution of it, you're going across the whole range of skill sets. From construction to promotion and financing, to the creatives with acting, scriptwriting, film editing and more. Then all that follows in post-production. It's a whole food chain with all the links in it. Almost the links in this case were local and that's hugely important to us".

Let’s go back to Dathaí ’s brain, and the seeds of this bilingual adventure in the Wild West.

"I'd been doing a lot of drama documentaries but my aim was always to break into either film or high-end drama," Keane admits. "I didn't want to shoehorn the language into a procedural or a contemporary type of story. So I was looking for something where the Irish language would be used natively".

First came a trip to Canada and the realisation that its vistas and the landscapes of home closely matched. Then a cult HBO series sparked a story idea.

"I'm a big fan of Deadwood and there's a great scene where characters are referred to as 'Cornish miners' but they’re actually speaking Irish. Speaking our own language!

"That was a great light bulb moment of 'wow, people spoke Irish in the Wild West. Let's do a Western in Irish!'"

As ever with these kinds of productions, there were compromises along the way.

"Obviously we would have liked more money to be able to do [everything]. There's the script you write and the script you shoot. So we had to go back once we knew what our final budget was in terms of the funding we got from the BAI  – the BAI were a massive part of this and provided the lion's share of the funds.

"Once we knew what we would have to play with, we then went back and looked at the scripts again and realised some sequences were over and we just wouldn't have been able to achieve them to the level we wanted to. We were able to come up with alternative methods. That was something that I'm very happy to do.

"You don't necessarily need to go out and there and have what Game of Thrones has – €[10] million and dragons coming out! As Ian McShane said, it’s just tits and dragons!

"At the end of the day, an audience wants a good story. Good characters. And they want to feel an emotional connection with what they see on screen. That's something you can do with a big budget or a small budget".

Robert O'Mahoney as Jacob Hopkins, in An Klondike

As for the other side of the money trail, has the show paid its way?

"I would say.... just about. It was an expensive shoot to do. It pays for itself in the sense that you're working while you're doing it. You're getting paid to do the work, but that's it".

It’s a commitment to art over commerce and something Keane wants to see more of from the Irish.

“We've had a good year. The Film Board had a great year. Look at Brooklyn and Room. There were a slew of other good films that came out last year. I would say we're doing... okay. One thing that's been very beneficial for us is that we've had the outside productions coming here. I'm talking about the Penny Dreadful, Ripper Street, Vikings... Game of Thrones.

"What's been really good from that is we have top, top, class crews in Ireland now, from working on these high-end productions. We have cameramen, costume people and production designers who've worked at the very top of their game.

"What I would love to see happening more is that we as 'creators' would harness that talent and would start coming up with our own stories that are inspired by our own indigenous heritage. And then use those great talents and craftspeople to tell those stories".

"It isn't just about people indulging a lifestyle. This is about real business, real jobs"

Ó Ciardha says TG4 have been pleased with the return they’ve seen from fostering Keane’s ideas.

"Obviously with any investment you make, it's public moneys and you expect to get a return on it.

"There is a certain element of the return not being overnight. This is now out there and being sold and being promoted in other jurisdictions. The return is there already, significantly – a six-figure return.

"That will increase and the gong-laden IFTAs will enhance that. But it is important for us to know that our stuff will travel, and any time that we enter our content in international competition, it wins awards from places and juries you might not expect to be the most acknowledging of Irish language content.

"So that again is another validation of the entire project. The investment of public moneys carries a return that is both cultural and commercial. Both are hugely important”.

He says that TG4’s overall performance is currently worth about €66m of a contribution to the Irish economy every year.

“That's pretty much double the current investment. We've 300 jobs depending directly in the independent sector on our commissions and you can probably multiply that by two or three again in terms of direct [employment]. So it isn't just about people indulging a lifestyle.

"This is about real business, real jobs. A lot of the talent that has come through the front door of TG4 is going to the benefit of other broadcasters. A lot of people on film sets making major Hollywood movies here in Ireland got their training here and will possibly come back to working on TG4 projects. We're part of a wider picture".

The new, global picture brings its own problems.

"Five years ago there were five channels selling TV advertising in Ireland. Now it's more like 55. Most of the 55 are actually originating outside the state".

Ad revenue is chiefly used to buy in shows such as Breaking Bad in an effort to entice new viewers. All public funding, however, must go to Irish language projects.

"70% of our public spend money is on content alone, so the administration costs are kept to a minimum. Going forward, it's a real challenge to see how we can continue to keep doing what we do on the level of funding available. But that's the challenge we've set ourselves.

"We've always been underfunded. We have made a difference and I think people appreciate that. We don't think that everybody's going to watch TG4 all the time but I think people see that it is different... It will always be there and always be something different".

Meanwhile, Keane is raring to go on the next series of An Klondike. Scripts are being finalised and filming is about to commence, but it’s been percolating in his mind for years now, out of necessity.  

"I've been working on the second for quite awhile,” he reveals. "Just because of the whole way you need to get funding for these things. The scripts need to be written and submitted for funding rounds quite ahead of time. And then you really have to plan out. You have these two year cycles almost where you're always looking two years ahead to what you're going to be developing and filming...

"Last time, there were no expectations. Now we've set a bar very high and we aim to exceed that this time. I’m looking forward to it".

Continuing to bring the likes of An Klondike to the public is how Ó Ciardha sees TG4 marking their big anniversary. There will be retrospectives as October 31st nears, but not too much back-slapping around their Baile na hAbhann headquarters.

"We're not a station that's big into parties and self- congratulation," Ó Ciardha concludes. "We like to let the content show it".

For more information on An Klondike, visit anklondike.com