Monday 27 March 2017

RTE has failed to catch early birds

Even if Montrose bosses wake up to the success of morning TV, it's probably too late, says Jennifer Bray

Every morning Alan Hughes rolls out of bed at 5:30am. He makes himself presentable, drives around from the North Dublin coastal town of Malahide to the TV3 studios in Ballymount, drinks four cups of tea and prepares to wake the rest of the country up on Ireland AM from seven o'clock onwards.

For those of us at home, bleary eyed and somewhat dozy, his spirited entrance on to our screens and that combination of energy and engagement so early is enough to rattle us from our own drowsy reverie.

And a short channel hop across to the UK, there is the well-documented ratings war between ITV's Daybreak and BBC's Breakfast, which keeps viewers spoilt for choice in those early hours as they reel through news, views, and entertainment.

While all these stations are gearing us up for the day, the national broadcaster, RTE, features teleshopping from 7am, the previous day's Four Live with Maura Derrane from 8am and then Murder, She Wrote. There may be no denying that the station rules the roost on the radio airwaves with Morning Ireland, but this gaping chasm in their TV schedule has left Irish viewers with very little home-flavoured options.

And it is not for a lack of presenters who could draw an audience -- look at Grainne Seoige, who has excelled in her role as features editor with Daybreak in the UK.

This deficiency of variety on Irish screens for the early birds comes at a time when morning programming may be reaching its highest-ever audience levels and fullest potential, something which media analyst Michael Foley is keen to point out.

"At one level you might say that if you see an increase in unemployment, more people at home will be watching TV in the morning, so there is that aspect coming into play when you consider the role of morning broadcasting. There is a growing appetite then for what TV3 has to give."

According to Mr Foley, it may be too late for RTE to wade in and fill this fissure in its listings.

"TV3 has a very nice package in the mornings. They have a magazine-style show which operates in little segments and that works because people would be moving about, making their breakfast and would not be tuning in for the whole show.

"If RTE decided to go down this road, they would probably only be splitting the audience and it would not work.

"They also have to consider the dire situation in terms of advertising and in terms of their role as public service providers. It would be hard for them to grow and cultivate an audience now."

There is one solution, and it's cheap and cheerful and draws on a current success: broadcasting Morning Ireland on a live stream.

"To broadcast Morning Ireland on a live stream from RTE 1 might a good idea. Viewers could switch over to see, for example, what the Taoiseach looks like when he is doing an interview or if there is someone they might know being interviewed. It would probably cost very little. But copying the format of the other breakfast shows is not an option. They would not be able to build up the viewership."

This is a battle that TV3 faced when they first broadcast Ireland AM to an embarrassing 7,000 viewers in 2000. It has come a long way in the past 10 years, and now commands a much healthier audience of 200,000 on average.

Presenter Alan Hughes was there when Ireland AM first went on air to a spectrum of critics and an Irish public who had spent the previous years tuning in only to UK productions like GMTV.

"Myself and Mark Cagney have been here since day one. I roll in at the last minute, loving the fact that I am working on the edge of the timeframe, while Mark has to scour all the papers for a long time. Over the last 10 years we have found a chemistry that works and we have built ourselves up to the point that we are now attracting almost 40 per cent of the Irish audience every morning."

Hughes says the format of the morning show has more to offer now than ever before to the discerning viewer.

"It seems to me that more and more people want morning TV now. I have lost track of the amount of people who say to me that they wake up with me every morning, which does make me laugh, albeit nervously sometimes. We give serious news, and colour, and gossip."

RTE sources have remained tight-lipped on whether it plans to bring the hugely popular Morning Ireland on to our screens, but the idea for this was originally mooted in 2007 and never quite made it to fruition.

In the meantime, Irish couch potatoes and critics alike must wait until the afternoon to see that lighter form of current affairs show on RTE between the recently launched Four Live, and the Daily Show with Claire Byrne and Daithi O Se, whose chemistry has not quite lived up to expectations because of their very different styles of broadcasting.

Given the dire warnings of the media experts, Ireland AM may well continue to be Ireland's only homegrown morning show for the early birds for yet another 10 years.

Sunday Independent

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