Television's biggest turn-off
I n the closing stages of last Sunday's All-Ireland hurling semi-final, as Patrick Horgan popped over yet another meaningless consolation point, Ger Canning got very excited. Why, wondered RTE's first-choice GAA commentator, hadn't Cork played like this from the start. If they had, things might have been very different. All they lacked was the belief.
It is fair to say that this bizarre analysis of a match which was over at half-time and which had demonstrated Kilkenny's current superiority over Cork to an embarrassing degree is unlikely to have been shared by many people. If you came out with it in the pub, you'd be laughed out of it; if you said it at home, they might have considered ringing the doctors. Not even the most optimistic Cork hurling fan would have agreed with it.
Even the Cork players would have been bemused by the notion that the game was theirs for the taking if they'd only got the finger out sooner. Yet here was RTE's main GAA commentator making a statement which seemed totally at odds with reality.
Earlier in the game, Canning had regaled us with the story of a Kilkenny man who, five years ago, placed a bet of €50 on Kilkenny to win five All-Irelands in a row at odds of 1,000/1. This seemed like something of an unlikely story, the bet seems unlikely, the odds frankly unbelievable. (In fact, I'm so unconvinced that I'd appeal to the man who placed the bet to send me the original slip. Obviously I'll send it back immediately.) But the main problem was that as Canning meandered through this piece of apocrypha he sounded not so much like a man who is not very good at telling stories as like a man who had never told a story before in his life. In between times he wondered aloud at the extraordinary mystery of why Cork weren't as good as Kilkenny now when they had been as recently as half a decade ago. It was no worse than the usual Canning performance.
It's often said that there are people who, when watching big GAA matches on television, turn down the sound and listen to Micheál ó Muircheartaigh instead. This is taken to be a tribute to the undoubted greatness of the Kerry commentator, but it can also stand as an indictment of the station's championship coverage on television. Because the sad fact is that while RTE does sport better than it does anything else and does it better than foreign stations with much greater resources, its GAA coverage is the glaring exception. It is absolutely dire.
(I interrupt this column to make an important observation. Many's the letter which has appeared in the pages of this paper arguing, in effect, that I am a bollocks who doesn't know what he's on about. It goes with the job. There will always be people who don't like what you do. Maybe they're right, who knows? But they are a very sensitive bunch out in RTE Sport. On the off chance that they do not adopt the same laissez-faire attitude as their print brethren, I would like to point out that I am expressing a personal opinion in this column. I fully accept that there may be legions of people out there for whom Ger Canning and his colleagues are the jewel in the crown of Irish broadcasting and are to sports journalism what Shakespeare was to literature, Serge Gainsbourg was to sleeping with beautiful young actresses and Ivor Callely is to bilocation.)
Canning could be defended on the grounds that Marty Morrissey commentaries, with their unbearable folksy blather about 'the far over side of the pitch' and 'leaving the ball into the square', can be an ordeal in their own right.
In defence of Canning, he's a different man when it comes to soccer commentary. Gone are the irrelevant asides, the laugh which sounds like the kind of thing a Cork businessman would produce just before he falls off his yacht into Kinsale Harbour after an enjoyable lunch, the general logorrhoea. Soccer Ger is a perfectly decent commentator. And perhaps that, as much as anything else, tells a hugely dispiriting story about RTE's GAA coverage.
If there's one thing which prevents your licence fee from feeling like a con trick perpetrated by a gang of extortionists, it's RTE Sport. There was tacit acknowledgement of this in the recent promotion of Glen Killane, formerly head of the sports department, to become Managing Director of Television.
The station is fresh from a triumph at the World Cup finals where its coverage was notably better than that of BBC and ITV. Its rugby coverage consistently outshines Sky Sports. The station even made a decent fist of covering the European Athletics Championships. There is a general impression of intelligent people working hard and thinking about how to make things even better. It is a heartening national success story.
But when we come to GAA coverage, the same high standards which apply elsewhere in the sports department seem to go out the window. There is a flabbiness and a complacency which is absent from the rest of the output. There is, for example, a stark contrast between the unfussy professionalism of George Hamilton and the floundering of Canning and Morrissey. Hamilton may not be a great individual in the vein of McLaren, Alliss or ó Muircheartaigh, but set his commentary side by side with those of his GAA counterparts and the difference is obvious. You never have to make excuses for Hamilton.
The air of lassitude enveloping the entire GAA package is perhaps epitomised by anchor man Michael Lyster. One of the characteristic sounds of the Irish summer is Lyster cutting across any moderately controversial comment by one of his panellists with an 'in fairness now' or a 'some people would say,' designed to take the heat out of the argument before it's even got warmed up. The man is to excitement what the old Censorship of Publications Board was to sex. He seems determined to stop people getting het up about things in case it mightn't be good for them. Lyster is the exact opposite of his soccer counterpart Bill O'Herlihy. O'Herlihy facilitates, encourages and often provokes debate. Lyster stifles it, as though the target audience was a convent full of elderly nuns who might expire if subjected to excessive levels of excitement.
A similar malaise has affected Des Cahill since his ascension to the helm of the Sunday night review programme. Cahill is normally a good broadcaster, but in his new role he seems as stiff and self-conscious as a copper reading out the serial numbers of stolen video recorders on Garda Patrol. In fairness to the man, he seems affected by the air of solemnity affected by so many of the panellists. Giles, Dunphy, Hook and Pope are all proof that you can say serious things while still maintaining a lightness of touch and displaying some joie de vivre. That lesson has not sunk in at The Sunday Game.
Take, for example, the discussion on the Leinster final, when any unfortunate foreigner tuning in might have got the impression that RTE had covened a panel of experts to examine the possible consequences of an impending nuclear attack. The painstaking sombreness of it all and the whole sense that the panellists were performing an onerous duty rather than enjoying a lively discussion killed the debate stone dead at a time when every GAA fan must have been looking forward to seeing how the various controversies of the day would be covered.
That discussion also highlighted another grave error of judgement by RTE, the persistent use of panellists to comment on their own counties. Defenders of this ludicrous tradition point to the fact that Sky Sports use ex-players to analyse matches involving their former clubs. But there's a vast difference between the relationship of a soccer player to his former club and that of a GAA star to his county. The soccer player probably went through a few different clubs in his playing career and won't generally be living near his old stomping ground.
The GAA being what it is, the inter-county player will have retained close connections to his team. He is in no position to comment objectively on their matches. And it shows the lack of professionalism in RTE that this problem is usually both acknowledged and made light of by their anchormen. That whole, "You're not going to be saying anything against Kerry anyway Dara," routine got stale a long time ago.
In the aftermath of the Leinster final, this nonsense was brought to absurd extremes when RTE called on Colm O'Rourke to analyse the game that night. O'Rourke is not just a Meath man, his son Shane was playing full-forward for the Royals that day. Anyone who has kids themselves will understand why O'Rourke was in an impossible position.
Meanwhile, Des Cahill invoked the hurt feelings of the referee's family and pointed out, somewhat superfluously, that the official hadn't set out to make a mistake. Kevin McStay's contribution was obviously hampered by the fact that there was a father of one of the Meath team, and no Louth man at all, present. The result was an oddly unbalanced discussion which never captured the inherent tragedy of Louth being cheated out of a Leinster title and instead might have made you feel that Meath were the real victims.
The most vexing thing was that it is at precisely these big water cooler moments of controversy that the soccer and rugby analysts come into their own. Their GAA equivalents, however, give the impression that pronouncing on controversy is anathema to them. Even when they do so, when for example nailing Kerry players for the off-the-ball offences, they are at pains to point out how reluctant they are to perform this terrible task.
So why is RTE's GAA coverage such a dereliction of its duty as national broadcaster? Competition surely has a lot to do with it. In his great short story 'Proofs', George Steiner evinces as proof of the dysfunctional condition of Communism the fact that, in the East, a country with as great an engineering tradition as Germany produced a car like the Trabant. GAA coverage is RTE's Trabant: it looks terrible, it doesn't work very well and it's all we've got. And, like the Trabant, it is the product of a state monopoly.
When it comes to rugby and soccer, RTE has to compete with the British television stations whose resources are much greater. If it covered these sports in the same lacklustre way that it approaches Gaelic games, the viewing figures would be catastrophic. Instead it doesn't just rise to the challenge, it revels in it.
But there are no competitors when it comes to the GAA, except for BBC Northern Ireland with that air of parochial desperation so reminiscent of an underfunded local radio station, so the standard has been allowed to stay low. RTE even have the gall to counter criticism of their coverage by pointing at the impressive viewing figures enjoyed by The Sunday Game. Of course the viewing figures are good. People want to watch the championship and RTE is the station which has it. Citing viewing figures merely implies that RTE are doing a good job if they're not actually driving fans of hurling and football to switch off the set in disgust. If the GAA set the bar that low, you'd get a point for kicking the ball two feet off the ground.
Maybe I'm being harsh there. Maybe the top brass in RTE think their GAA coverage is fantastic. But here's something interesting. Glen Killane has been replaced as Head of Sport by Ryle Nugent. Nugent, unusually for someone in this job, has a lot of experience as a commentator. In fact, he is a very good commentator. So it would beggar belief that he doesn't see the inadequacies of the way in which the station covers the country's most popular sports. He should try and do for Gaelic games what his predecessors did for soccer and rugby, for the sake of GAA fans, fans who are as intelligent and eager for serious commentary and analysis as those who follow other sports.
Why? Because we're worth it.