The North Cork woman is at the helm of her family-run Outside Broadcasting (OB) business, TVM, which, after an unavoidably quiet few months, is now gearing up to hit the road once again.
Based in the small village of Bartlemy, Helen, husband Bart and their staff are currently planning out every last inch of space in the new artic truck, which will be manufactured by a specialist company in the UK.
Helen explains how ‘OB10’ was added to the fleet to allow their teams have as much social distancing as possible during Covid, but also in response to the growing production demands of the industry in which they’re leaders.
Bart started out back in 1977, and by 1986, and married to Helen, had established a sound systems and video production business with two employees.
“At the time, the only OB providers in Ireland were RTÉ and the BBC and we saw an opportunity to be the first independent provider. We broke ground working on the racecourses, providing a public address, and saw a need for pictures.
“We grew the business over a few years and got our first outside broadcast unit in 1986, which was built by ODAM in Blarney, who had built the ‘Popemobile’.
“Then a few key people in the industry said they’d give ‘that lunatic in Cork’ a chance, he delivered and we kept going forward!” said Helen.
Racing is still very much at the core of what they do, and it’s managed by their sister business, Iris, which is headed up by their daughter Marie.
In May, 2020, they were awarded a four-year contract for the provision of televised services by Horse Racing Ireland and the Association of Irish Racecourses.
Their second daughter Trish freelances as a vision engineer and works in Arc House.
“It’s in their blood,” joked Helen. “There’s no getting away from it!”
Iris now has 25 staff, while TVM has a team of 50, along with a regular pool of 150 freelancers it works with.
TVM provides all the technology (OB trucks, cameras, microphones, cables, generator) and the technical and operational crew (camera ops, sound crew, replay operators, engineers, graphics ops), while the client or broadcaster provides ‘the talent’ (those seen or heard during the broadcast) and the production team.
“For example, All Ireland finals would see a crew of about 120, 25 of them from RTÉ/SKY and the remaining our own, a mix of staff and freelance,” explains Helen.
Like all businesses, the pandemic completely changed how they’ve had to work.
“From an operational point of view, we have had to develop ways of crews working remotely — all the stats for Sky GAA are compiled remotely in our Dublin base.
“We also found ourselves broadcasting mass and funerals in the Spring of last year and have since set up several local parishes to stream their church services.
“We have worked with a few ad agencies, where a director for a particular shoot could not travel to Ireland and we made it possible for them to direct their crew on the ground here, to see and hear all the takes.”
The recent announcement by the GAA of their calendar for the year means it’s now all shoulders to the wheel at TVM.
Their location in the rural area of Bartlemy has at times caused surprise, but Helen says it’s never been an issue.
"And when we were building our new headquarters in 2012, lots of people suggested we should go to industrial estates nearby, but we’re very rooted in the area, this is where we’re from and this is where we want the business to grow,” said Helen, who is originally from a farming family in Conna.
Bart is also from a farming background, and their appreciation of the importance of nature has influenced a lot of how they live and do business. In fact their HQ won a prestigious national Green Building Award.
“Recycling is a buzz word now, but we’ve been recycling all our lives, as have all our neighbours. Making firewood from packing, feeding hens or pigs or wild birds with food scraps, car pooling to school and games... As awareness grew of the damage we humans were doing to the environment, Bart and I felt we should do all that we could to protect our local area — be as sustainable as possible in every way,” said Helen.
A personal highlight of her career was Pope Francis’s visit to Knock in 2018.
“I got to see him in person and we had deployed some new technology to help cover him driving though the crowds and that worked 100%. The only downside was that we had planned an aerial view of the pope travelling from Knock Airport to the shrine and some overhead shots of the huge crowd in the grounds of the shrine, but the helicopter couldn’t fly because of the weather.”
Outside of Mother Nature, the only other glitch they can’t prepare for is losing power.
“All of our worst moments have revolved around power. It’s very rare that you’d lose all sources but that’s the single biggest fear alright. You can build back-ups into everything … but power is vital,” she said.
Not surprisingly, TVM has won many awards over the years, and has been named one of Ireland’s Best Managed companies in the Deloitte Best Managed Companies Awards programme an incredible eight times. And, after more than 40 years in the business, Helen’s top advice is to surround yourself with the best people you can afford. Turning 60 next year, she said herself and Bart are starting to think about succession, but she has no plans to go anywhere just yet.
“I’m having far too much fun! We love what we do, so it doesn’t seem like work to us most of the time!”
Queen’s visit to Ireland.
Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland (Helen looked after the Knock part of the visit but TVM covered all the major venues including Croke Park, Phoenix Park and his trip though the city streets in Dublin.
G8 Summit, 2013, in Lough Erne.
U.S Presidential visits: Bush, Clinton, Obama, Trump.
GAA since 1986.
Ireland v England rugby game in Croke Park.
Numerous shows with TG4.
British Open for Asahi TV in Japan in recent years, including Portrush in 2019 when Shane Lowry took home the claret jug (Helen was lucky enough to be on the 15th green for the final round which she describes as ‘magical’.)