Sunday 18 March 2018

Screen test: is RTÉ switched on?

Most of the recent drama at the station has been off-screen as a new boss took over the remote control and a star cast of ­executives chose to leave. In the week Montrose launched its autumn schedule, looks at daunting challenges facing RTÉ in the midst of a digital revolution

Can RTE survive the digital revolution?
Can RTE survive the digital revolution?
Keeping Ireland Alive comes to RTE
RTE's new legal drama Striking Out, starring Amy Huberman.
Can't Cope, Won't Cope stars Nika McGuigan and Séana Kerslake.
Dee Forbes, Director-General of RTÉ will be hoping the new season announced this will make amends for shows such as the €6m flop Rebellion
John Meagher

John Meagher

In the early hours of Monday morning, RTÉ wrapped up its Olympics coverage with footage of the closing ceremony. But for senior executives at Montrose, an event of an even greater magnitude took place later that day.

At 11am, at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin's so-called 'Silicon Docks', the national broadcaster unveiled new season programming for both RTÉ One and RTÉ2.

It was the first shot in anger from the multi-platform broadcaster since the appointment of Dee Forbes as director general, although as the Cork native has only been in the job since July 11, her input to the new schedule would have been minimal. And Forbes, who has kept a deliberately low profile since getting what's arguably the top job in Irish media, did not address journalists on Monday. Adrian Lynch - controller of RTÉ One and interim controller of RTÉ2 - fulfilled that role, with various presenters.

Much of clamour from Monday was centred on Can't Cope, Won't Cope, a new-female driven comedy drama starring newcomers Seána Kerslake and Nika McGuigan... and the new legal drama Striking Out, starring Amy Huberman.

Dee Forbes, Director-General of RTÉ will be hoping the new season announced this will make amends for shows such as the €6m flop Rebellion
Dee Forbes, Director-General of RTÉ will be hoping the new season announced this will make amends for shows such as the €6m flop Rebellion

RTÉ bigwigs will be hoping to impress with a series of factual documentaries, including Keeping Ireland Alive, which was filmed in 75 locations throughout the country on the same day in May, and Generation Jinxed - Generation F***ed, which aims to tell the stories of the country's beleaguered 25 to 35 age group.

Des Bishop and comedy troupe the Rubberbandits are also mainstays of RTÉ's new season: the former is fronting This is Ireland, which the broadcaster is describing as a series that "finds humour in the chaos", while the latter will find the mask-loving Limerick pair presenting four half-hour episodes featuring "their own absolutely unique take" on "sex, money, the internet and reality".

While RTÉ did their best to inject an element of glamour to Monday's launch, there's little doubt that the broadcaster is at a crossroads, perhaps unsure of its place in a changing media universe. And there's been huge change in RTÉ, of late too.

Three high-profile personnel have quit this summer: head of news and current affairs Kevin Bakhurst is leaving in October for a senior job at UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom; former RTÉ2 controller Bill Malone is set to take up a position as head of programming for TV3; and ex-TV head Glen Killane has already departed RTÉ and is now managing EirTV and Eir Sport.

When Bakhurst's departure was announced, Forbes was moved to email all staff. "This is a period of significant change in RTÉ and across the media landscape generally," she wrote. "Change can be disconcerting, but ultimately I have always believed that change is good; with it, we challenge ourselves, our thinking and our ways of working. Organisations like ours need to grow and evolve, and audiences must ultimately benefit."

RTÉ staffers have had to get used to enormous change over the past decade, not just because of changes in the way we all consume TV thanks to the advent of both Netflix and 'second screens', such as tablets and smartphones, but also in an environment where rival domestic networks have stepped up to the plate. The recession that hit in 2008, coming on the back of already declining advertising revenue, was a further hammer-blow that some would argue is still reverberating.

Keeping Ireland Alive comes to RTE
Keeping Ireland Alive comes to RTE

In the 24-month period of 2009/2010, 500 staff numbers were shed as RTÉ sought to save money and become more financially efficient. It was a period that saw morale nosedive and there were some high-profile departures, too, not least that of Pat Kenny to Newstalk. The commercial broadcaster urged listeners to "move the dial", and many did.

"It's still a very uncertain time for many," says a leading RTÉ staffer, "but that's probably true right across the media. In the 80s and 90s, RTÉ felt like the biggest show in town, with all the perks and security that that brings. But it's very different now.

"Having said that, in the recession years it was particularly hard and you were trying to keep standards up while your budgets were being cut left, right and centre. At least now, there's a sense that the panic - for want of a better word - has subsided and there would be a lot of hope that Forbes will shake things up for the better."

There was considerable surprise when she got the job, simply because RTÉ had not gone outside the organisation for a DG since 1963. But her CV is remarkable: at Discovery Networks, she had responsibility for 27 TV stations broadcasting in 18 countries and with a reach of 276m EU households.

Another long-term employee who has worked on both TV and radio at Montrose believes viewers aren't as "brand-loyal" as before, and RTÉ has suffered as a result. "The days of the TV sitting in the corner with the same channel on are long gone. The same goes for radio.

"It took TV3 a long time to provide real competition, but they've been doing that now for a couple of years at least. Buying the rights for the Rugby World Cup and the Six Nations [which departs from RTÉ to TV3 in 2018] show they mean business, and their new owner's deep pockets will put it up to RTÉ. That said, they're a long way from where we're at when it comes to current affairs and the sort of work being done by our investigations unit."

Ask anybody at RTÉ what they're most proud of right now, and the same response comes back time and again: RTÉ Investigates. "The Console programme [highlighting abuses in the suicide charity], in particular, showed RTÉ the public service broadcaster at its very best," says one veteran. "That story led the news agenda in this country for at least a week and it was a result of time, resources and money deployed in the best possible way.

"It's just a pity that so much of the programming is so weak and that's been especially apparent this summer. The Francis Brennan goes to India thing was dreadful, and don't get me started on the series that [model and socialite] Vogue Williams did - let's just say [English documentary-maker] Louis Theroux won't have sleepless nights."

Finola Doyle O'Neill, broadcast historian at UCC and author of a recent biography on Gay Byrne, The Gaybo Revolution, praises RTÉ for its promotion of women and notes that presenters like Miriam O'Callaghan and Claire Byrne have prospered in such an environment.

"It's likely to improve even more from an equality point of view now that a women is director general," she says, "but in many other ways, RTÉ lags way behind. Virtually every presenter is a white Caucasian. You wouldn't realise what an ethnically diverse country this has become by looking at RTÉ, and yet the national broadcaster is supposed to reflect who we are.”

DIT media studies lecturer Harry Browne says RTÉ's fondness for format-based reality TV shows is regrettable and an effort to score big in the ratings, but he believes there are occasions when it excels.

"Take the Olympics," he says. "There was a real sense of everyone huddled around RTÉ when it came to coverage of the tournament and a lot of the conversation was about the work they did there - that interview with Katie Taylor, the rowing lads from Skibbereen… They had a lot of people in Rio and that really helped when the Pat Hickey story broke and for the duration of the Olympics it really felt like a national broadcaster.

"Big events like that and its investigations coverage, for example, show how important it is to have a national broadcaster that's resourced properly."

Browne notes that "10 or 15 years ago", the conversation would have been about the competition that RTÉ was facing from other media, but believes there's been so much dumbing down that if can feel as though RTÉ still has the market for quality broadcasting all to itself. And yet, the days of the best programming being exclusively on RTÉ are long over, according to Doyle O'Neill. "TG4 has consistently strong, innovative programming," she says, "and it's a great example that even on small budgets, top-quality stuff can get made."

And the must-see high-minded drama of the autumn is not on RTÉ, but rather TV3. The three-parter Smalltown begins this Thursday and stars comedian Pat Shortt in the straight role of a farmer who has to cope with his wife's terminal illness and his son's forced emigration, and sudden return.

It was written and directed by Gerard Barrett, who is one of the country's most acclaimed young directors, and its slow pace and adroit handling of big themes makes it feel like something that should have been broadcast on RTÉ.

On Wednesday, TV3 will launch its new season of programming, and it's expected that there will be an increase in the amount of current affairs programming on the schedule. Buoyed by the consistent audience pulled in by the late-night Vincent Browne show, the station has been hinting that it will create a topical alternative to Prime Time.

While Dee Forbes has remained tight-lipped about what changes she has in store for RTÉ, it's said that she was particularly enamoured by The Collectors - a documentary aired in July and shot entirely on iPhone.

It demonstrated the sort of agility that she wants the broadcaster to have and also how inexpensive it can be to make TV programmes now that mobile technology has advanced to such a degree that conventional - and costly - cameras, sound equipment and so on are not always required.

"My aim is to work with you to future-proof the organisation to cope with the changes our industry is facing," she wrote to staff in her first day on the job, "whilst ensuring that RTÉ is a beacon of creativity at home and abroad.

"As an Irishwoman who has spent 27 years back and forth to Ireland, RTÉ has been one of the great constants. In an ever-changing world, the role of RTÉ in Irish society is more important than ever. We cannot assume our place in people's affections. It was won by you and the people who went before you and, in a very fragmented world, we have to keep earning that role."

The gloves are off - and the fight is on.

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