The Live Register: on the frontline of television

Rónán Burtenshaw

TN talks to the people behind The Live Register, DCTV’s new discussion programme, about setting up a TV show and why they did it.

The crew of The Live Register have taken a step into the unknown in recent weeks. Neither Moira Murphy nor Donal Higgins, the show’s presenters, had a wealth of experience making television. They are still learning the ropes, they tell me, as are their co-travellers in the recent addition to the Dublin media scene, Aubrey Robinson and Mark Malone.

But, after the success of Dole TV, The Live Register has had a promising start. The Dublin Community Television (DCTV) discussion show has produced two episodes of a six-part debut series that have gained over a thousand views on television and online.

Harder than attracting hits, even, is the task of approaching difficult issues – like fracking and abortion – in an accessible way but without engaging in simplification. They intend to repeat this for episodes on housing, the International Financial Services Centre, banking debt and deportation.

“We wanted to assemble a small group of people who were media-literate, but not experts, and politically aware to shape the content of the programme. Everyone involved with the show was responding to issues we had seen. That helps a lot, particularly at the start.”

That start began, as with many ambitious plans, “outside a pub somewhere”. Donal says they were aware of a lack of media coverage on a series of issues they felt were in the public interest. But this project, unlike most of those sketched out tentatively on a coaster, actually came into being. How do you go from having an idea to actually putting something on TV?

“The script itself doesn’t come together until the end. The narrative comes out of that week building the show.”

“With DCTV the first step is to become a member. Then you get the chance to volunteer with projects or, if you have your own idea, you submit it to the planning committee. They are usually very good and give people a chance – as was the case with us.”

DCTV was established in 2008 as a community access TV station. It transmits to over 200,000 households across Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Galway and Waterford and creates its programmes in-house – with individual members, member organisations and not-for-profit TV stations all getting the opportunity to submit content.

The pool of volunteers the station has, Donal says, is helpful in facilitating the technical aspects. His degree is in media studies, which contains aspects of camerawork and editing, and he has been working on a JobBridge scheme with the TV station since the beginning of the year. But this is not much preparation for the task of putting together a show for air.

“We’ve a broad idea of what we want to do, but within that it can take on a life of its own at times.”

“The space of time we have to develop a show is really a week. We won’t have much time before that to put content together,” Moira says, “the network you pick up from working on campaigns is essential to developing a show in a week – you’d struggle without it.”

How does this process begin, I ask her. Being a print journalist with only clichéd fantasies about the world in front of the camera, I posit the idea of writing a script. “Well, first, you panic! Actually, I think the first thing we do is look for an interesting angle and a nuanced way of telling a story. A lot of it depends on what’s feasible – who is around, where and when in that time period. The script itself doesn’t come together until the end. The narrative comes out of that week building the show.”

One of the difficulties, says Donal, who interviewed Clare Daly TD for their most recent episode, is making sure not to prejudice what guests are going to say. “We can’t shape the shows too early because we don’t know what the interviewees will say. We’ve a broad idea of what we want to do, but within that it can take on a life of its own at times.”

Balance is also a challenge, particularly when you are taking on divisive issues. The duo have a distinctive approach to attaining broad spectrum discussion on topics – which is a welcome respite from the formula of contrived equation promoted by a lot of mainstream media outlets.

“To get balance, we try to give our guests space. To outline what they think and expand on their answers in a way you might not get elsewhere. We don’t often go for groups who have had a lot of attention, which helps, too, I think.”

The group expressly focuses on giving voice to people who have not been able to find one in the mainstream media. “If you take fracking as an example – the people we were talking to there don’t get a lot of media attention, so we were conscious that we were providing a service, helping people to document their story and struggle.”

There is an interesting debate in media circles at the moment about the role of journalists and the kind of engagement they have with stories. Is their emphasis on telling a story counterposed to the idea of the journalist who stands outside the story and looks to make independent assessment?

“The impact we can have is to encourage other people who are perhaps frustrated by the media here to go out and produce something themselves.”

“Yes, I think there is a sense in which we are trying to reflect aspects of what’s going on at a community level rather than placing ourselves above it. If you look at the mainstream media the issue of private housing, for example, is covered very well but social housing rarely gets a mention. This is the kind of different angle we’re looking to take.

“This is how DCTV contributes to the television landscape as well, I think. Their impact is in how television is made. It is open to anyone to come in and make television, and you’re not going to get that opportunity with RTÉ.”

While Donal conceded that it would be very hard for a state broadcaster to do this, he did emphasise the value of democracy in the media. Moira agreed, saying that there should be some mechanism to ensure democratic input into the television and radio RTÉ make.

My own experience in community media made me question some of its effectiveness, especially given how difficult it is to attract an audience. The Live Register team, however, remained totally committed to their content – insisting that the fact it would remain as a resource would justify its production even if viewer numbers didn’t hold up.

But they are also very clear that this is a learning experience for all involved. They are trying to produce a discussion show that is different to those in the mainstream media, but figuring it out show-by-show. “We’re not nearly there yet. It’s a process and a work in progress. Our focus is on the content and we’re learning the techniques to convey that better as we go. We’re happy with how it has gone so far, but hope to improve too.

“We don’t expect what we’re doing here to change the media in Ireland. Maybe covering the stories we do will prompt other organisations to do it, particularly if they’re done well. But more likely the impact we can have is to encourage other people who are perhaps frustrated by the media here to go out and produce something themselves rather than just criticising it. That would be a lasting positive effect.”

The Live Register airs on Tuesday nights at 21.30 on DCTV, UPC Channel 802. Their content can be found on Facebook at