Monday 26 September 2016

The return of the king of Irish broadcasting is long overdue

If Pat Kenny wasn't still needed on Irish TV, he'd have been replaced by someone better by now

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

Gay Byrne Photo: Jason Clarke Photography
Gay Byrne Photo: Jason Clarke Photography

Aside from a one-off return following the death of Ryan Tubridy's father, Pat Kenny presented his last Late, Late Show in May 2009, ten years after taking over from Gay Byrne on the iconic Friday night programme.

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He'd presented Kenny Live on Saturday nights for even longer before that, and was a stalwart on Today Tonight from the mid 1980s, and most viewers surely agreed that a change was due; it was time for him to step aside and let younger upcoming broadcasters have their place in the sun.

Seven years on from that decision, there's just one question: Where are they? What happened to all the bright young things who were supposed to leap into the gap left by the departing Kenny?

To say that they've been notable by their absence is putting it mildly. Ryan Tubridy has an engaging, if sometimes awkward persona, and he's proved solid and dependable on the Late, Late Show; he's certainly more comfortable with showbiz fluff than Kenny ever was. But it hasn't exactly been an exciting era.

Ray D'Arcy, who's now roughly the same age as Kenny when he took over from Gay Byrne, was brought back to RTE from Today FM with a great fanfare, but his Saturday night show turned out not to be worth waiting for either; it was roundly mocked by critics and public alike, many of whom tuned in purely to see what new disasters might await each week. The infamous night of the Jack Nicholson lookalike was car crash TV at its most mortifying.

As for TV3 and UTV, neither of those networks has managed to bring through new broadcasters with the stature of their long-standing predecessors on Irish TV.

So it's less than surprising to hear from the launch of TV3's autumn schedule at Dublin's National Concert Hall last week that Pat Kenny will soon be back on screen, beginning a new, so far unnamed series on Wednesday evenings alongside Colette Fitzpatrick.

Unsurprising, and welcome. Today Tonight showcased Kenny's facility for hard hitting current affairs right from the start, and he returned to that role on RTE's The Frontline after his time at the Late, Late came to an end, complementing his daily radio show; but since leaving RTE for Newstalk in 2013, he has been strikingly underused.

There was a short-lived series called Pat Kenny In The Round on UTV Ireland, and he handled TV3's election debates with no-nonsense authority; but his appearances on television have been intermittent, which is a shame, considering that he's not only an exemplary broadcaster, but has arguably become a much better one in recent years.

The switch from RTE to Newstalk was risky. There was a job for life for the veteran presenter in Donnybrook. He could easily have seen out the remainder of his career there as one of the station's highest-paid and respected names.

Instead he took a leap into the dark, at a time when most people in his position, having recently turned 60 and with nothing left to prove, would be content to rest on their reputations. The move came with a big marketing budget for the new show, but it could all have gone horribly wrong very quickly. Instead, it prodded him into upping his game.

Newstalk doesn't have the vast teams of researchers which throng RTE, so the presenter has to rely more on instinct, wit and natural intelligence. Kenny proved to have those in spades. He was more relaxed. He was funnier. He seemed to relish both the change and the challenge.

He hasn't managed to catch up on those listenership figures for Today With Sean O'Rourke, who replaced him in the same time slot, which must have been disappointing; but that has simply proved the inbuilt advantage which RTE has over its rivals.

Quality seems to matter less than familiarity. Irish radio audiences are innately conservative. They don't like altering their habits, especially older listeners on whom the Joint National Listenership Research figures consistently show that RTE relies.

Nonetheless, he has built The Pat Kenny Show into an essential part of the Newstalk schedule, its importance confirmed by the earlier starting time and longer running length in the new schedule.

Obviously, he's not without his weaknesses or foibles. He can be a bit of a show off, especially when it comes to talking about science, and his occasional over-scrupulousness was roundly sent up on The Savage Eye. Sometimes satire gets so close to the truth that it hurts, though Pat can at least console himself that his comic alter ego is a much less vicious creation than that of Joe Duffy on the same show.

Despite all that, it's hard not to think that Pat Kenny deserves an apology from all those who have been so scathing about him down the years, this writer included. Oops. He had the misfortune that his time overlapped with one of the most brilliant, iconic broadcasters of the modern era, not only in Ireland, but anywhere. Nobody could have replaced Gay Byrne. He made it look so easy. Any successor was a lamb to the slaughter.

Pat Kenny faced that firing squad and just got on with it. Over time, he proved his worth, and is now having the last laugh over those younger, inferior rivals. It's an admirable trait to still have that hunger after more than 40 years in the business.

That's probably the most impressive thing about his return to television. His deal with TV3 is worth a reputed €500,000 over three years; he'd have been mad to turn it down. But one does still sense from him that a far bigger motivation than money is knowing that he can still do this better than the rest. He wants the big stories, the landmark interviews; if anyone is going to fire the hard questions, he still wants it to be him.

"There just isn't anyone like him on Irish TV," said a TV3 source last week.

That's his legacy.

But what an indictment of the younger generation of radio and TV broadcasters that none of them has yet risen to the standard set by the generation which preceded them.

Sunday Independent

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