Monday 22 December 2014

The matriarchs of Montrose

Susan Daly profiles the female presenters in the RTÉ power stakes and looks at who's hot and who's not...

There must have been a few bitter laughs in the RTÉ canteen last March when the national broadcaster announced its latest lifestyle show. What Am I Worth was a career makeover programme which advised participants on getting a job they could be passionate about -- or at least a better-paid gig.

It's the kind of advice several RTÉ 'personalities' could do with themselves. If you think the office politics in your workplace are tricky, take pity on the denizens of Donnybrook. In what one RTÉ insider described to Weekend as "a game of snakes and ladders", getting to the top of the broadcasting food chain is an unpredictable journey.

Whether your star is in the ascent or descent is as much a result of luck, who is championing who, the dealings of showbiz agents and unofficial 'trends', as it is based on talent.

Female line-up

This is particularly true for RTÉ's female front-liners, few as they are. A recent RTÉ Radio 1 advertisement featured a line-up of its showcase presenters: only two of these were women, Mary Wilson and Marian Finucane. Where was Aine Lawlor, one of our sharpest, most experienced broadcasters, co-presenter of Morning Ireland, the country's most listened-to radio programme?

'Personalities' are top trumps in RTÉ. Every second cover of the RTÉ Guide -- which one must presume peddles the party line -- seems to feature Grainne Seoige in an evening gown, Pat Kenny squeezed into a tuxedo or some childrens' presenter in an 'all grown-up' ensemble.

Mary Wilson, who fronts the hugely-demanding Drivetime and has a long career in outstanding journalism behind her, has as yet not managed to make it into RTÉ's annual list of top 10 earners -- unlike, say, Derek Mooney and John Kelly.

So how are our matriarchs of Montrose faring in all the froth? One hesitates to use the word 'veteran' in relation to Marian Finucane and Anne Doyle. Yet, pitched alongside some of RTÉ's new generation of highly-publicised female presenters, Doyle and Finucane are like survivors of a nuclear holocaust in which smart women were wiped out for having something of note to say.

The superbly empathetic Finucane has earned her place in the top 10 highest-paid in RTÉ without having to self-promote. Her company, Montrose Services Ltd, was paid €455,190 in 2006 (the last available figures from RTÉ). Only Miriam O'Callaghan -- straddling current affairs in Prime Time and the chat show couch in Saturday Night With Miriam -- joins her in the elite top 10, with her Baby Blue Productions taking €221,383 for 2006.

Finucane -- who was quick to insist that her PPI Outstanding Achievement in Broadcasting award wasn't one of those end-of-career recognitions -- has a phenomenal legacy. Her work on the Women Today programmes in the 1970s moved Irish broadcasting into a new era. "We were always in trouble," she said of the programme. "I remember one senior manager at RTÉ saying to me after one programme that he could not eat his dinner and that he did not know how far we were going to go."

Yet, three years ago, Finucane was moved from her morning weekday slot to the weekend. She has gone on to reinvigorate the weekends and pile on the listeners -- in spite, one might say, rather than because of RTÉ's faith in her.

The newsreaders

Anne Doyle has had a similar experience with the mandarins. She still fronts the main evening RTÉ 1 news bulletin -- the Nine O'Clock news mostly edges just ahead of Six One in the ratings. Hugely liked by colleagues for her wicked sense of fun, she represented staff on the board of the RTÉ Authority from 2000 to 2005. However, of the three evening newsreaders -- Sharon Ní Bheoláin, Doyle and Brian Dobson -- only one appeared in this year's RTÉ top 10 earners list: Dobson.

In 2000, rumours abounded that Doyle was getting the push to the weekend and Mark Little was to take her place in the evenings. Doyle allegedly blew up and RTÉ bosses backed down. Doyle later said "it wasn't quite like that", and that the weekend news is, in any case, a ratings winner, but the fact is that the lady was not for moving.

Mary Kennedy -- beautiful, gracious and a consummate professional -- might have some private thoughts on the issue. At the age of 52, she finds herself on the fringes of RTÉ, co-presenting Nationwide. Her popular Open House slot with Marty Whelan is long gone, replaced by Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh and Sheana Keane's girly The Afternoon Show.

In the past year, she has lost two important annual presenting gigs -- Up For The Match and the People of the Year Awards -- both to Grainne Seoige, a point which Ryan Tubridy pressed home in a recent radio interview with Kennedy. A few days later, Tubridy interviewed his Noel Kelly talent agency stablemate Grainne Seoige on her delight to be landing the plum jobs.

Only Prime Time host Miriam O'Callaghan appears to be making her way into Pat Kenny/Ryan Tubridy prime-time entertainment territory. Insanely glamorous, affable and intelligent though she undoubtedly is, mum-of-eight O'Callaghan has described herself as "an accidental presenter". There is a very obvious push behind O'Callaghan to get her to the next level: she is being touted by many as the next presenter of the Late Late Show. The Saturday Night With Miriam summer runs have been given much more publicity than, say, Kennedy (Mary Kennedy's summer stint) ever did.

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