Comment: RTE is stuck in a permanent 1974 as summer schedules elsewhere offer brilliant new series
No longer the dead zone of old, TV during the long, bright summer nights is now so good, it’s tempting to pull the curtains and sinfully binge on Game of Thrones or Chance. The channels have got the message: compete or die, writes Pat Stacey
Have you noticed how summer has changed over the years? How it’s slowly but surely been transformed as a result of the interaction of strange and previously unthinkable phenomena?
I’m not talking about the crazy weather, with its wildly fluctuating meteorological mood swings between torrential downpours and blazing sunshine, high winds and stifling humidity. Reliably unreliable weather at this time of year has been around for quite a while now. It’s called global warming.
I’m talking about summer as viewed through the television screen, although these days you’re just as likely to view it through the screen of your laptop or smartphone. In a nutshell, television during the long, bright summer evenings has got good.
It’s got so good, in fact, that summer on the box is now virtually unrecognisable from what it was even four or five years ago. Back then, aside from major sports events like Wimbledon and the various football, rugby and athletics tournaments that roll around at two- or four-year intervals, television in the summer was a dead zone: an arid, parched entertainment desert where nothing blossomed.
Figuring, rightly or wrongly, that people were less inclined to stay in watching television during the long summer evenings, and that for certain weeks a large proportion of the regular audience would be out of the country on holiday, broadcasters trimmed new programming back to almost zero.
The schedules across all the main terrestrial channels were a jumble of odds and sods. During the week, the evenings were filled with wall-to-wall repeats of comedies, dramas, documentaries and lifestyle shows, some of which had aired as recently as the previous winter.
At the weekends, the yawning gaps in the schedule were filled with films, the broadcasting equivalent of Polyfilla, many of which were second- or third-run offerings, because Sky’s subscription movie channels had snaffled all the new releases, leaving the terrestrial broadcasters and free-to-air film channels like Film4 or TCM to fight over the scraps.
(This situation, incidentally, has only got worse since Sky expanded its empire to niche movie channels. When, for instance, was the last time you saw a late-night black and white classic or a rarely seen cult film on BBC2 or Channel 4, which used to be the go-to places for such things?)
Mostly, new original programming consisted of Saturday-night talent shows like The X Factor, which came with a built-in and inexplicably loyal audience, or trashy reality shows like Big Brother, which were a handy way of filling up weeks and weeks of airtime at comparatively little cost.
If a brand-new drama or comedy series unexpectedly materialised on one of the terrestrials during the summer months, it was invariably because the broadcaster in question knew it had an absolute stinker on its hands and was cutting its losses by dumping it onto screen at a time when it would receive the least notice and do the least damage.
The channels deliberately held back all the good stuff, all their biggest guns, until the autumn months when television would emerge from its cave, yawn, stretch and get back to doing what it’s supposed to do: entertain the audience.
How times have changed. Summer television is now virtually indistinguishable from autumn television. That grim, barren scrubland has been transformed into a lush garden with new life blooming all over it. New series are springing up all around us, to the point where there’s barely enough time to enjoy them all — both a blessing and a curse for someone who writes about television for a living.
This didn’t happen overnight. The change was gradual. The major contributing factor was the rise of Netflix, which began as an online outlet for DVD sales and rental but expanded a decade ago into streaming media. The effect on viewing habits has been game-changing.
Viewers can construct their own TV schedule to suit their personal needs. Who needs to wait around until the evenings start to grow darker again for RTE, BBC, ITV or Channel 4 to come up with the goods when there’s a huge range of content, new and old, a few clicks away?
Streaming services are no respecters of trends or tradition. The seasons of the year have no bearing on them whatsoever. Netflix, which is still the dominant force in the market, unveiled the latest seasons of its two biggest hitters, House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, at the end of May and the beginning of June, respectively.
Netflix can now boast that it premieres at least one brand-new series every week. You might not want to watch all of them, but the point is they’re there if you do.
Sky Atlantic, which has pockets deep enough to beat the terrestrial channels to prestige American series such as Westworld, unveiled its latest original production, the flashy, trashy Riviera, on June 15. It might be terrible, but it’s terribly expensive to make, too, and proves that the old rule about the summer being a black hole for investing in major drama no longer applies.
And let’s not forget Sky Atlantic’s biggest attraction of all, Game of Thrones. The seventh season begins on July 16, right in the middle of a month that used to be regarded — and not all that long ago, either — as a complete write-off.
All of this, plus the availability of satellite channels like Universal, which this week began showing Hugh Laurie’s new series Chance, and Fox, which holds first dibs on prestige US series like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and Legion, has put enormous pressure on the mainstream channels in the UK, which for decades cosily assumed viewers would stick with them through thick and thin (the thin being summer) without complaining too much. It took a while for the message to sink in, but they got it in the end: compete or die.
The UK channels have upped their game dramatically. ITV has never in its history shown so many new summer dramas as it has this year. It’s currently showing the Broadchurch-style murder mystery The Loch on Sundays and the conspiracy thriller Fearless on Mondays, with a few more in the pipeline in coming weeks.
Channel 4 has the finest drama of the year, The Handmaid’s Tale, on Sundays and the third season of Fargo on Wednesdays. BBC2 offers the final season of Ripper Street on Mondays, while BBC1 is showing Jimmy McGovern’s Broken — an unrelentingly bleak series that couldn’t be less summery — on Tuesdays.
This year, BBC1 took the bold step of bringing the latest season of its Sunday-night hit Poldark forward from autumn to summer. The reason given was to avoid a clash with ITV’s Victoria, which stole viewers away from the Cornish melodrama last year. Still, though, in years gone by, the idea that the Beeb would ‘squander’ one of its biggest successes in years in a summertime slot would have been considered scheduling suicide.
The one place, needless to say, where the trickle-down effect of this television revolution isn’t being felt is RTE, which is stuck in a permanent 1974, where the vast majority of people don’t bother watching TV during the summer, and therefore the national broadcaster is under absolutely no obligation to provide a decent service.
I’ve been looking through the RTE line-up for the coming week; it didn’t take me long. Strip away the American and British imports that sustain RTE2 — most of which anyone with a mind to watch has probably already watched on other channels anyway — and it’s barely a functioning channel at all.
RTE One, on the other hand, is a functioning channel, the most-watched Irish channel in the country. But it’s an absolute disgrace. Between 6.30pm and 1.05am today, the only programmes that aren’t films are Pat Shortt’s Entertainment from D’Telly and Redwater — and both are repeats.
It’s a formula that’s repeated (no pun intended) in various combinations, night after night, throughout the whole of next week. Going on the experience of previous years, there’s no reason to suppose that things are going to pick up for the remainder of the summer.
The new run of Miriam O’Callaghan’s Saturday Night with Miriam, which starts next weekend, is most likely as good as it’s going to get... assuming Saturday Night with Miriam fits your definition of ‘good’.
The return of Ireland’s favourite mother-of-eight is being heavily flagged right now with promos featuring her slapping paint of various colours onto a sheet of glass.
I’ll resist making a comment about watching paint dry.
It’s generally accepted that one of the few jewels in RTE’s dull, tarnished crown is its news coverage. Whatever else happens, we can always rely on Dobbo, Sharon and all the rest to be there when we need them, from 6.01pm to 7pm every Monday to Friday, rain or shine, to keep us up to date with what’s going on in the wider world.
Except we can’t, really. Not during the summer. Like everything else in RTE, Six-One is subject to summer shrinkage. Come July, the flagship teatime news programme is invariably chopped back from an hour to 30 minutes. Actually, if you add in an ad break and subtract the sports coverage and weather, it’s more like 15 minutes.
The assumption seems to be that nothing much happens during the summer. But a lot can change during those missing 45 minutes when RTE News has taken its eye off the ball. A war can break out. A major natural disaster can strike somewhere the world. A US president can be impeached or resign. A pope can die.
You have to think that sooner or later something like this will happen. And what will RTE One be showing? Another repeat of Reeling in the Years.