Friday 26 December 2014

What will RTE do without Pat?

As the Late Late presenter turns 60, RTE must prepare for an uncertain future, says Colum Kenny

Published 03/02/2008 | 00:00

It's a BIG 60, especially for RTE. Pat Kenny himself seems none too fazed by reaching his 60th birthday. But RTE should be concerned.

Pat is soo 20th century. When he finally steps down it will mark the end of a golden era in RTE. You shall not look upon his like again.

PK still pulls in the crowds. He is, by general consensus, better on radio than on television. What exactly that means in terms of the business of broadcasting is hard to say. Because, for someone who can be awkward and stiff on screen, Pat Kenny manages to attract the sort of TV audiences for which other presenters might give their right arm.

And that's why RTE indulges him, allowing him to come and go on radio with remarkable ease. He was gone last week, replaced by a stand-in.

The Today With Pat Kenny programme is described by RTE as "rock solid". Asked this week if PK was about to retire, an RTE spokesperson replied, "not in the foreseeable future". She pointed out that 65 is the normal age for retiring, and that the age (if anything) is going up, not down.

If PK left RTE in a huff and went to another station, the cost to Donnybrook in lost audience and lost advertising could be considerable. While rich Pat slugs it out with his Killiney neighbour over ownership of a lump of land, RTE battles an ever-growing number of new broadcasters.

The decline of RTE's dominance has been slow but sure. Thirty years ago, when PK was on the way up, at least four out of every five listeners were tuned into what is now Radio 1. Today, that share is down to about one in five. No longer can RTE presenters assume that they are addressing the nation.

The change has consequences for those who care about the quality of broadcasting. Today, many young people seldom tune into serious news coverage or current affairs programmes, or hang in there for in-depth documentaries. Many are wrapped in a cocoon of cotton, composed of DJ babble and US sitcoms. You do not have to be a sourpuss to wonder about the implications of this for the good of society.

One of the attractions of greater choice on the airwaves was meant to be a wider range of programmes. What we get now from many radio stations is little more than repetitive and shallow news headlines.

And the bizarre effort by TV3 to launch a somewhat-US style late night studio show with an entirely un-US-like Vincent Browne just points up how awkwardly that national channel has even half- heartedly aspired to provide gripping Irish-made content.

It is not that broadcasters are strapped for cash. Even radio services have changed hands for very large sums, with the Communicorp group (for example) recently spending e200m for three stations alone. The largest of those, Today FM, has just recorded pretax profits of e7.4m on a turnover of e19.4m. That is quite a take, more than twice what it was two years earlier. And the current year is expected to be even better.

For its part, the Dublin station FM104 has announced a profit of e2.9m on its turnover of about e9.5m. First the IRTC, then the BCI, who issued highly commercial stations their licences were slow to insist on the kinds of programmes that the stations clearly could have afforded to make -- and the kinds of staff who could have made them.

In fairness, the privately-owned Newstalk provides an interesting alternative to talk on RTE. But RTE has a particular obligation because it receives millions in public money. It may strive to hold onto its dwindling audiences with programmes about housing or health that could be made elsewhere just as well. But can it grip the imagination of a younger Ireland by discovering new personalities who consistently engage audiences in the intelligent way that a Pat Kenny or a Marian Finucane has done over decades?

For now, you can tell from its website that RTE is not too worried about the future of the Late Late, still the single most popular TV show in Ireland. The station is still telling us in February that PK "looks tanned and rested after his summer break". It also asserts that, "Pat Kenny is angry". But two big pictures of him smiling broadly give the visual lie to this feeble attempt at exciting attention. We all know that Pat is a gentleman in a metaphoric blazer. He does not get angry -- he gets concerned.

The anointed child, Ryan Tubridy, is a prince in waiting, a mere lad at 34. And the ever-young Gerry Ryan continues to age slowly in that oak cask that is 2fm. But do not bet on either inheriting the Late Late Show farm. PK will sit it out and, like the bachelor son waiting for his father to pass him 50 acres, first-name Ryan and second- name Ryan could grow wrinkled and bitter and left on the shelf in favour of younger blood (or, God help us, even a woman presenter).

RTE Radio was a remarkable national institution during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Under the late Michael Littleton, in particular, it helped to shape the social agenda and change the minds of a generation. And Pat Kenny was very much a part of that success story. He is still a good radio presenter today and, at his best, gives listeners a feeling of confidence that no stone is being left unturned. So, happy birthday Pat! But commiserations to RTE as that station tries to provide for an uncertain future.

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