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The firm behind First Dates Ireland: 'You're only as good as your last job and next idea'

For Coco Television and other independent TV outfits, a lot hinges on the whims of RTÉ.

Image: RTÉ

WHILE COCO TELEVISION may be a significant player in the local TV industry with shows like the hit First Dates Ireland, the make-or-break decisions that affect its livelihood largely rest with one entity – RTÉ.

The company recently signed on to produce a third series of the popular reality dating show, which has grown to become a vital part of the company’s stable.

Coco Television has been eager to get its hands on the format for years. It unsuccessfully investigated the opportunity to bring the concept to Ireland itself, before tendering for the contract to produce First Dates when RTÉ won the format.

It’s a project the production company couldn’t afford to get wrong, according to Coco Television co-owner Linda Cullen.

She tells Fora that shows like First Dates and other recurrent series – or repeat series – like its flagship show, Room to Improve, are what keep the company afloat.

“We are really looking at how do we survive as a company and how do we make sure we have a certain level of production.

“So we put an awful lot of work into getting repeat series. That’s the only way of getting a little bit of stability.”

For the most recent season of First Dates, the firm doubled its efforts as the show went from a six- to 12-episode run.

That meant increasing the number of casting producers from two to four and also doubling the resources poured into producing and editing the series, which is shot over six days in the Gibson Hotel in Dublin.

Linda+Cullen+COCO+Television Source: Coco Television

Cullen, who is speaking at MediaCon next week, says the focus is now on making sure the show doesn’t lose momentum and face any risk of being dropped from the RTÉ schedule.

In turn, the success of series is dependent on its ‘stars’ – the would-be romantics who apply to be on the show. However, in a small Irish market with a limited talent pool to pick from, she says for the next season the producers will need to hit the pavement.

“Myself and the series producer Hilary O’Donovan are looking at new ways to do it and street casting who we want to get in. We’re not just going to look at our database, we’re saying let’s go out there and find the people we want.

“We had a shortage of older daters (people over 35) last year. They tend to be really textured dates because people have a lot more living in them and they’ve had more relationships, so we want to try and be a little more successful in that area this time round.”

Secure

The relative stability at Coco Television – with several repeat series in the pipeline – belies the nearly 30 years it has taken to develop a secure portfolio, according to Cullen.

She says the current independent production sector is a far cry from the 1980s, when she and the company were first starting out.

“You would be banging on people’s doors and saying you could do it for half nothing. There’s still a bit of that, but now there is at least a statutory level of around €40 million that RTÉ have to spend which ensures a baseline activity.”

Nevertheless, even with the guaranteed funding in place, the industry has suffered as RTÉ trimmed back its budget for independent Irish productions – leaving firms to fight over the reduced pool.

In 2007, the broadcaster spent €80 million on commissions from the independent sector, but in recent years it has only just broken the mandatory threshold of around €40 million.

Capture Room to Improve's Dermot Bannon and Lisa O'Brien Source: RTÉ

Even with funding from its main employer slashed, Coco Television managed to stay in the black during the recession.

Its most recent accounts show the firm netted just under €120,000 in 2016, a 65% drop on the previous financial year.

Despite the dip in profits, Cullen says the company has got to a place where it can start to take on more full-time staff.

“Most of the people who work here are freelance and that’s difficult then because they’re always in and out.

“It’s difficult for us because how do we continue to develop new ideas if everyone is working on that project and nothing else?”

Recently, experienced Irish television producer Anna Nolan came on board as head of development at the firm and the company has also been able to hire a social media producer.

“Every year we have felt we’re not going to make the overheads. We’ve had years in the past where at times you wouldn’t pay yourselves. Not all year, but nothing was secure.

“So it takes a long time before you can build up that baseline of security. I wouldn’t even say we’re there yet, because you’re always worried about where you’re going to get your next big project. You’re only as good as your last job and next idea.”

First Dates Maitre D'  - Mateo Saina 4 b First Dates restaurant maître d’ Mateo Saina Source: RTÉ

The need for more permanent staff could also come if the production house manages to nab some more long-term prospects.

Cullen is coy on the exact projects Coco Television is targeting, but she adds the company is looking at both original programme ideas and non-original series that could be adapted for the Irish market.

“We really have our eyes on more repeat series and we’re always looking for the next thing. But for every five projects you work on really hard, only one might come off.”

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Written by Killian Woods and posted on Fora.ie

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