Female TV Presenters: There is only one Queen Bee
The life of a female TV presenter is a hard slog with fierce competition for few jobs, particularly in RTE where the top broadcaster gets most of the air time. Catherine Murphy looks at the alpha female, her possible successor and those who went before her
Published 16/10/2011 | 11:40
Almost 15 years on, Thelma Mansfield still recalls the day she found out that ‘Live At Three’, the show she presented with Derek Davis for 11 years, had been axed. She didn't hear it at a meeting with RTE executives in Montrose, she says.
Instead, she was buying petrol at a garage in the west of Ireland when she spotted a newspaper headline on the stand. There it was, for all to see, ‘Live At Three’ was getting the chop. After 30 years of working at RTE, Mansfield found out that her show was being cut, alongside every other punter who went into the garage to buy petrol that day.
She laughs about it now, but back then, it bothered her. “It didn't matter how long you had been at the station or what your status was,” she recalls, “you didn't have the luxury of finding out face to face. There was a policy of leaking news, and I'm sure the story had been leaked. I went out to my husband and said, ‘You're not going to believe this, Johnny...’
“They wanted to get rid of the old faces and bring in some new ones. There was nothing left in TV for me.” She was still some years away from her 50th birthday at the time. In 1999, Mansfield retired fully from RTE to devote herself to painting. She had been offered a radio presenting job, but says she turned it down on the basis that it meant another presenter would have been axed to make room for her.
Fast forward to 2011 and the world of television could be considered to be even more cut-throat than ever, yet Miriam O'Callaghan is over 50 and at the top of her game. She and Marian Finucane are the true alpha females of Montrose, both cementing places in RTE's top 10 earners. But further down the pecking order, things are tough for ambitious women in the national station as budgets are squeezed and presenters compete for a diminishing number of projects.
For women, who make up as little as 10pc of all presenters on commercial Irish television stations, it's becoming increasingly tough to grab a slice of the peak-time TV pie. They have to be more thickskinned than ever. Female presenters on RTE are also often expected to combine serious journalism with light entertainment. “Look at Miriam O'Callaghan, presenting a fluffy Saturday-night chat show as well as fronting a serious current affairs programme like ‘Prime Time’,” says one TV journalist.
“In the UK, presenters aren't expected to cross over in that way, even in RTE. Male presenters aren't expected to cross over between serious and light in that way, yet it seems to be expected of women.” Production budgets are down and a spokesperson from RTE said that the station is facing very challenging times with a forecast net deficit of €17m this year and even greater difficulties in 2012.
And fewer commissions mean less work for talented women. Many are on contracts rather than in staff jobs, and some of the shows they appear in are produced by independent production companies — for example, ‘The Daily Show’ featuring Claire Byrne is produced by Green Inc; ‘Crimecall’ is produced by Coco Television and Seoige's upcoming documentary series is produced by David Blake Knox of Blueprint Pictures.
An RTE spokesperson explained: “We cannot afford to pay presenters who are not .... on air. Consequently, RTE has varying relationships with presenters; some are on staff contracts, others are contracted to RTE via companies and others as sole traders...” There are two other very obvious reasons why up-and-coming women might be finding it hard to get good gigs in RTE. Those two reasons are Grainne Seoige and Kathryn Thomas. Both hungry for success, in their thirties and still with a lot to prove, Seoige and Thomas are neck and neck in the popularity stakes at RTE right now.
In some corners of Montrose, the word is that unless your surname is Thomas or Seoige, you've zero chance of landing a big gig in the next 12 months. Thomas has just landed RTE's biggest entertainment show of the year, ‘The Voice’, beating Seoige to it. According to her agent Joanne Byrne, she had never seen Thomas as determined to win a presenting role as she was when auditioning for this one.
“It's no accident that she got it” she says. “Kathryn has worked really hard and made clear choices to get to this point in her career”. While Lucy Kennedy is less visible (she's currently presenting a 2fm radio show every Saturday and Sunday between 7 and 10am) and Sile Seoige has moved to presenting a show on ‘Newstalk’, big sister Grainne is so comprehensively spread through RTE's autumn schedule that critics say she'll be ringing the bells for ‘The Angelus’ next.
Suddenly looking like the busiest presenter in the country, she's popping up all over the place from ‘Crimecall’, ‘Up For the Match’ and ‘Put 'Em Under Pressure’ to ‘The People of the Year Awards’ and a new documentary series called ‘Seoige's Modern Life’, which explores topics that are of concern to Irish women.
Managed by Noel Kelly, who also has Ryan Tubridy on his books, Seoige has always carefully controlled her career. ‘Crimecall’ seems like a big step back for someone who spent a year covering feature stories on the ‘Daybreak’ sofa. Many observers can't understand why Anne Cassin and Con Murphy were replaced as ‘Crimecall’ presenters.
Some industry sources say it's simply a matter of RTE using the talent that they already have when money is tight, and possibly of fulfilling contractual obligations. “It is, after all, a semi-state body and they have to be seen to save money,” says one freelance contributor to RTE programmes. “There's this notion that RTE presenters sit around at home picking and choosing which shows they work on.
“That's not true, especially not now. During the boom, it might have been more possible to pick shows that played to your strengths. There was lots of money and more people floating around, but nowadays, a smaller amount of work is being spread around a smaller group of regulars. “Grainne's stint on ‘Daybreak’ didn't really work out that well for her,” says another industry expert. “She didn't have enough time on air to really get her foot in under the table. She gained a reputation for being very professional and earned some new fans in ITV “Presenters don't turn down jobs,” continued the source.
“RTE gets criticised for throwing every female that comes its way on to the Lottery show or ‘Winning Streak’ whether it suits their style or not, but it's a no-brainer for presenters. ‘Winning Streak’ is on prime-time television 39 weeks of the year and has an audience of 600,000.”
Seoige, more than most, knows what it takes to reach for the top. Sky News Ireland’s office closed while she was its news anchor. ‘Seoige', the afternoon chat-show that she presented with sister Sile, was axed in 2009 and last July, just before her stint at ‘Daybreak’ ended, news broke that ‘The All-Ireland Talent Show’, which she presented, had been axed to make way for ‘The Voice’.
The sight of Seoige on so many shows begs a number of questions — mainly, what's left for RTE's other female presenters to front, and is she in danger of being over-exposed, like a number of RTE's female stars before her? “It's not only happening to women in RTE,” says one industry commentator. “It's happening to the men too. Look at how RTE brought back Gaybo last year to do a series of interviews. This season it's Mike Murphy.
You can be sure some top male presenter out in RTE wanted to pitch for that series and isn't too happy that Mike has been brought back in. Having said that, his first interview with Tommy Tiernan couldn't be faulted, it was excellent.” An advertising executive who does business with the broadcaster says: “RTE has a reputation for buying in talent that has been nurtured by other media organisations, then using that talent over and over again until it's over-exposed and burnt out. This season, it seems to be over-doing it somewhat with Grainne Seoige. When women reach peak-time, they're over-used to the point of saturation. Carrie Crowley was a classic case in point.”
Crowley was RTE's Miriam O'Callaghan for the late 1990s, with a chat show called ‘Limelight’ that ran for two seasons and a host of other programmes that saw her on television almost every day of the week. Having started out in local radio in Waterford, she had moved to Dublin and quickly turned heads in RTE, presenting the Eurovision in 1997.
One female industry commentator says: “Carrie was seen as the kind of safe bet that RTE management always go for a nice girl up from the country who wouldn't offend anyone. They're still doing it to their female presenters, making them look mumsy and safe, sending them out in awful concoctions.” Carrie had worked for WLR in Waterford for five years before moving to Dublin.
Her show credits included ‘Echo Island’, ‘The Morbegs’, ‘Potluck’, ‘Pulse’ and ‘Limelight’, her chat show. “She was very happy to be there at the time,” says one contributor, who worked with her on the first series of ‘Limelight’. “But latterly, she has distanced herself from her RTE career, describing herself as an ‘accidental tourist' who just did her work”.
For the past number of years, Crowley has concentrated on acting work. But there are other women who disappeared too. Bibi Baskin started out as an Irish-language journalist and ended up hosting her own chat show. For a while, she seemed to be everywhere. Again, she was over-exposed and left not only the station, but the country, moving first to England then to India, where she continues to run the Raheem Residence hotel in Kerala.
Other female faces from the 1990s also moved on from their TV careers — among them Ciana Campbell who now works in PR in the west of Ireland, and Cynthia Ni Mhurchu, now a barrister. Of course, in the late Noughties, Caroline Morahan and Pamela Flood found themselves exposed and vulnerable when they lost their slots on ‘Off the Rails’.
While Pamela still does some work at RTE and has started a family, Caroline is living in Los Angeles where she is in a play, according to her sister and former manager Olivia. Last year, she worked on a series of high-profile TV ads for Littlewoods and fronted a cosmetic surgery show for TV3. “She's moved on from television now,” says Olivia. “She wouldn't want to talk to you about that.” Another highprofile presenter who found herself on the wrong side of the RTE rosters is Laura Woods, who went to work at the station when she was 22 and spent 10 years there.
“Laura was RTE through and through,” says a former colleague. “She was there during the boom, when there were lots of projects to get involved in. Then a couple of years ago, work suddenly started drying up for her. ‘She found herself with a lot more time on her hands than she previously had.
She loves being in front of the camera and wanted to keep working, but there was less work for her. “She went from being on a contract to being freelance, then she was working part-time. She used the time to go and get a Master’s in psychology to add another string to her bow. She's now appearing on TV3's ‘Ireland AM’ show, standing in while Anna Daly is on maternity leave.”
According to her agent, Laura received well wishes from lots of her old RTE colleagues when she began working on ‘Ireland AM’. Meanwhile, there is no visible sign of rivalry between Kathryn Thomas and Grainne Seoige, despite the fact that they're competing for the same big gigs. The pair recently competed in an Ironman competition together and when Thomas got ‘The Voice’ gig, Seoige tweeted positively: ‘Great to see the girls getting the gigs, congratulations'. “Female presenters do have to be thick-skinned,” says Joanne Byrne.
“There's no doubt about it. All your successes and failures are played out in public. If you get a job, it's great. If you don't get a job, it's not so great. Sometimes you don't get to front programme because you're not the right fit for it. Other times, you don't gel with the producer or director.
“It's a tough game and whereas the rest of us share our mistakes with our families and friends, TV presenters share them with the entire country. It's not an industry for the faint-hearted. You have to have a goal, be single-minded and have a long-term career plan”. “You also have to be prepared to be ripped asunder on TV shows and on Twitter and on blogs on a regular basis,” says an RTE freelancer.
“Even going on to a show as a contributor, you get ripped to pieces. You have to develop a thick skin and say, ‘Whatever'. It's a game and that's what the game is about”. There must be dozens of hopefuls out in RTE praying that Seoige and Thomas will reach the point of over-exposure and saturation to give them a chance at the top slot.
“Seoige and Thomas might seem to run the risk of over-exposure,” says an industry insider. “On the other hand, both women are solid presenters with good managers and long-term plans. “RTE is essentially like a game of snakes and ladders, and the way to know who's going to do well is to watch and see who is being asked to stand in for presenters on big flagship programmes — for example, Claire Byrne stood in for Marian Finucane on the radio during the summer.
“Keelin Shanley, who has a very strong current affairs background, is a female presenter who has more substance than gloss and will progress through the ranks to become the next Marian or Miriam.
Those presenters are playing the long game rather than grabbing everything they can in the short term.”