Friday 24 March 2017

How Tubridy turned the 'Late, Late' into the Lite, Lite

The TV star is the subject of an avalanche of angry tweets every Friday. Liam Fay says they're right on the button

It could yet prove to have been the happiest moment of Ryan Tubridy's reign as host of The Late Late Show. Last November, in the run-up to the annual Toy Show, Tubridy provoked a minor hullabaloo by announcing on the social networking service Twitter that he might wear a shirt rather than a novelty Christmas jumper on the big night. This innocuous remark was greeted by an immediate rustling in the cyberspace undergrowth.

A handful of tweeters, evidently besotted with childhood memories of former Late Late presenter Gay Byrne swaddled in snowman-emblazoned knitwear, expressed outrage at Tubridy's threat to cast off a beloved tradition.

Other contributors vented similar sentiments with varying degrees of seriousness, and the print media inflated the skirmish into a running news story. Alert to the promotional value, Tubridy encouraged a guessing-game about his Toy Show attire and didn't unveil his choice -- a Rudolph-bedecked pullover -- until showtime.

Throughout this period, he was delighted to ruminate about the lessons to be drawn from the episode.

"The jumper is a national institution," he declared. "I've learned that the hard way."

What must really have thrilled Tubridy, of course, was the implication that the jumper's wearer had become a national institution. For a heady instant, the stars had aligned in his favour, making him appear to be the talk and indeed the toast of the town.

The fact that this miraculous event had unfolded amid the trendy, youth-approved surroundings of the Twittersphere can only have heightened his joy.

Six months later, however, Tubridy's standing among the online chattering classes is akin to that of a local version of Rebecca Black, the head-wrecking Californian teen whose self-penned ditty Friday incited an orgy of online denunciation.

Criticism of Tubridy's cloying presentational style -- on both TV and the 2FM show he took over after the death of his friend Gerry Ryan -- has been intensifying on Twitter, and appears to be getting angrier.

The condemnation reached critical mass a fortnight ago, following Tubridy's failure to probe Ronan Keating about his reported philandering when the Boyzone smarm-merchant graced the Late Late to publicise a new album.

Online reaction to the deferential interview was so overwhelmingly hostile that RTÉ felt obliged to respond, denying allegations that Tubridy and Keating are friends who conspired to skirt around the touchy subject.

This circling of the wagons has done little to diminish the disapproving onslaught. Far from being the golden boy in the iconic seasonal jumper, Tubridy is now routinely depicted as an empty suit, a serially over-promoted time-server who has grown too big for his boots.

Ultimately, he has nobody but himself to blame. Still only 37, and already one of the dominant powers on RTÉ television and radio, Tubridy has never denied that he's a man in a hurry, but he has painstakingly conveyed the impression that his impatient ambition is as much for the audience's benefit as his own.

The reality is very different. Few deny that Tubridy is a smart, polished broadcaster with an amiable on-mic manner. It's what he's chosen to do with his talent and good fortune that rankles.

Rather than use his clout within RTÉ to insist on making programmes that rise to the challenge of a turbulent age, he seems content to cruise and schmooze. Compounding his offence is the fact that he's media-savvied enough to know precisely what he's doing.

On his anointment as Pat Kenny's successor in RTÉ's most coveted hotseat, Tubridy conceded that the Late Late needed to be "shaken up" and promised to give the long-running series a "21st-Century twist".

As we approach the close of his second year at the helm, however, the programme has never felt more like the 'Lite, Lite', a blend of soft interviews and syrupy cabaret that wouldn't look amiss in the afternoon schedules.

If Tubridy is content to go prematurely beige, he should step aside and allow someone hungrier, ballsier and edgier to take his place on the primetime frontline.

Unfortunately, he seems determined to carry on fobbing off his second-rate chat shows as some kind of cutting-edge innovation. Ironically, nothing highlights the contradictions of this bluff like his interaction with Twitter.

Tubridy surfs waves rather than makes them. Though he flaunts his credentials as a 'young fogey' -- endlessly citing his devotion to lounge music, for instance -- it's become increasingly clear that, at heart, he's a trendy wendy, a slavish follower of fashion.

He initially joined with those who dismiss Twitter as a notice-board for the clinically inane. But as it gained growing cachet among the would-be media elite, he lost his reservations and leapt aboard with gusto, soon becoming a microblogging evangelist.

He now uses Tubridy Tweets, his Twitter account, to promote his various professional endeavours, but also to present himself as an unrivalled connoisseur of classy TV. He never tires of tweeting about his love for HBO boxsets, More4 documentaries and Michael Parkinson re-runs. Fair enough, you might say. But a question arises: if he's so fond of quality TV, how come his own output is so hackneyed?

As with Black, Friday is Tubridy's downfall. While the Late Late is on air, Twitter is frequently ablaze with snarky critiques of its content, yet the show's supposedly clued-in presenter refuses to acknowledge this. He argues that too much of the commentary is bilious, personalised and downright unpleasant. Some of it certainly is, but a great deal of it is pithy, thoughtful and on-the-money.

The ease with which Tubridy dismisses online critics of the Late Late as though they were hate-filled begru-dgers brings us to another curious trademark: his black-and-white view of the world and apparent desire to be seen as a Pollyanna figure from whom never is heard a discouraging word.

Displaying an odd mix of arrogance and naivety, Tubridy seems to view himself as Ireland's official jolliness coach, tasked with turning our frowns upside down. "The country needs a hug," he proclaims with alarming regularity, often while extending his arms in the viewer's direction.

Tubridy is no doubt sincere in his eagerness to be seen as upbeat in these benighted days. Nevertheless, there is something witless about his insistence on "positivity" (his term) at all costs. Happy-clappiness, he should realise, is not the antidote to doom and gloom.

The insult to our intelligence aside, the most objectionable aspect of Tubridy's hear-no-evil/see-no-evil routine is the damage it's doing to the content of his programmes.

Inclusion of the most lame-brained drivel is frequently justified on the grounds that it's "cheery", "nice" or "optimistic". What it usually happens to be is cheap.

Meanwhile, his distaste for confrontation has blurred his judgment to the point that he can no longer distinguish between prurience and justifiable inquiry. Keating, for instance, is a schmaltzy poser who has traded on his image as a devoted family man. Letting him off the hook on live TV is a triumph for nothing but brazen hypocrisy.

Tubridy is a highly-paid public service broadcaster. His job is to entertain, inform and provoke. There are many instances when doing this job involves the asking of awkward questions; there are none when it requires the avoidance of hot topics.

In their prime, The Late Late Show and Gerry Ryan's radio programme provided space for national conversation, the robust exchange of ideas, arguments, even insults. Under Tubridy, both shows only function in this way intermittently, and badly require overhauling.

Today, for many, it's online platforms like Twitter where the most straight-talking, freewheeling public conversations take place. Tubridy would be wise to heed the word on the street before he discovers that the writing's on the wall.

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