Saturday 16 December 2017

Turn off: why knives are out for Ray D'Arcy

When he slipped into Brendan O'Connor's chair on Saturday night television, it seemed like a natural progression for the former Today FM favourite. But RTÉ's prime-time chat show has come under sustained attack from critics and viewers alike. What's gone wrong?

Ray D'Arcy hosts The Ray D'Arcy Show on RTE One
Ray D'Arcy hosts The Ray D'Arcy Show on RTE One
John Meagher

John Meagher

Within minutes of Ray D'Arcy's much-hyped guest, Dean Strang, appearing on his chat show last Saturday night, Twitter appeared convulsed in outrage.

Tweet after tweet condemned the host's choice of questions to the defence lawyer who features on one of the hottest series on television, Netflix's true crime saga Making A Murderer.

"I know Steve Avery is in prison but at least he doesn't have to watch the #raydarcyshow," tweeted one showbiz journalist, making reference to the central figure of the series.

Another tweeter was moved to comment that "not many people know this, but D'Arcy actually stands for 'Dreadful Awful Really Cringey Yawnfest'."

If there was little positive news for the Kildare native on social media, Monday's newspapers also had the knives out. The reader comments for the online reports were practically unanimous in their derision for a presenter who is among the most seasoned in Irish broadcasting and whose return to RTÉ last year, after 14 years at Today FM, was seen as a major coup.

But those hoping that D'Arcy has been left bruised by the criticism - and the snarky comments about previous instalments of his show - will be disappointed. The man who meets Review in the RTÉ Canteen on Tuesday, minutes after the conclusion of his titular Radio 1 show, says he is concerned with "the real world", and not the haters on Twitter.

"I don't have a Twitter account and I never read what's written, good or bad," he says.

"Anybody who thinks Twitter represents the views of the country as a whole couldn't be more wrong. Look at the data - it has nowhere near the penetration you think it might have." (An Ipsos MRBI survey this month shows that 31pc of the Irish adult population have Twitter accounts - with 35pc of those accessing it daily.)

The tenor of the criticism doesn't bother him either, he insists.

"No matter what you do, you're going to get people who are offended by the slightest thing," he says. "But the feedback I'm getting from people in the supermarket, or wherever, is positive. And the ratings are good, too. My boss [Adrian Lynch] said anything around the 30pc mark [audience share] he'd be happy with and we're close to hitting that."

Some 412,200 people watched last Saturday's show, which also featured David Bowie's ex-wife, Angie, and the celebrity chef Nevin Maguire, but far fewer - 361,500 - caught the previous week's instalment, with guests including football veteran John Giles.

In his 15 shows to date, D'Arcy has averaged 384,900 viewers - a 29pc share of the available audience watching television on Saturday nights. The host says he is happy with such figures four months into his tenure, but they lag behind what Brendan O'Connor's Saturday Night Show was achieving in the first 15 shows of last year's final season. O'Connor averaged 427,000 per show, and a 31.1pc share.

D'Arcy insists that a fair comparison can be gleaned once he is in the hot seat for five seasons, the length of time O'Connor was given before his show was axed last year. There had been widespread surprise that it was culled, especially as it was seen to have greatly improved and even out-performed The Late Late Show in the ratings on one occasion.

D'Arcy says he had no part to play in RTÉ's decision and his focus is making his own show the best it can be.

"I'm learning and it's improving," he says. "Don't forget that this is a new show and the first time I've hosted a prime-time chat show, but I love start-ups. I've been doing them all my life.

"We weren't going to land this year and be perfect, or being near perfect. But it's encouraging to know that there's something there - there really is."

The television critics have not been kind. "The first edition was so dismally flat, it cried out for a bicycle pump and a puncture plaster," noted the Herald's Pat Stacey, while this newspaper's Ian O'Doherty thought D'Arcy "seemed to lose the will to live as the interview [with pop star Tulisa Contostavlos] limped and wheezed towards its conclusion".

D'Arcy says he doesn't care what the critics say anymore. "It used to bother me when I was much younger, and new to all this, but not now. I was in here [RTÉ] six months and some guy - he used to review programmes on telly - remarked about my performance that I was consistently bad. I remember coming in and thinking that everyone had seen it and were thinking about it. But hardly anyone had seen it and what was probably on their minds was, 'What will I have for lunch today?' I would have been a sensitive soul years ago. But you have to be thick-skinned."

He says he is disappointed with the way some interviews with ordinary members of the public turned out, because they weren't as comfortable on TV as he hoped they would be.

"It took one guest, who will remain nameless, 15 minutes to half tell a story and I was going, later, 'Why the f*** did we have them on?' But that's part of the beauty of live TV, to a degree, and life isn't f***ing pre-packed and edited."

But he says there isn't a single celebrity interview so far that he thinks failed, especially the Dean Strang one. "Look, it was important that we explained the story to the viewer because not many would have seen Making a Murderer. I did a show of hands [before the show] and maybe 10 had seen it out of an audience of 200."

So why do the item at all? "Because it's a great story. I think a lot of people would want to watch it after that conversation."

Michael Kealy, executive producer of The Ray D'Arcy Show, points out that Strang himself was highly impressed with the way D'Arcy had conducted the interview and the knowledge of the case shown by the host, having been cc'd into email correspondence between the lawyer and an Irish journalist looking for a quote for an article on the reaction to the show.

Kealy is a chat-show veteran, having worked on Tubridy Tonight before playing key roles behind the scenes at The Late Late Show during the tenures of both Pat Kenny and Ryan Tubridy. "Ryan got horrendous abuse online when he first started," he says. "It goes with the territory of hosting prestigious, prime-time TV shows, and Ray is seeing that now.

"I don't like to see all that negativity on Twitter, but much of it is coming from the same people week in, week out. They could always watch something else, but they keep coming back to the show."

Kealy believes D'Arcy has performed well so far and notes that even the most successful chat-show hosts require a bedding-in period.

"And it's live, too, unlike the big chat shows in the UK and US, and that brings extra pressure."

But it's not just viewers with smartphones in hand who are expressing reservations about D'Arcy's suitability for the role. A veteran RTÉ producer, who does not wish to be named, says he is surprised by how "wooden" D'Arcy has appeared on TV to date.

"I thought he would be much more comfortable than he is and I think he's finding the transition from light to serious to be more of a challenge than he might have imagined. I'm sure he doesn't intend this to be the case, but on occasion he comes across as disinterested in the person he's interviewing.

"That said, his radio show has improved in the past few months after a sluggish start, and I think if he gets a better mix of guests on the TV show, it'll get better too. So much of the success or failure of these things is about the guests. The best interviews he did so far were with a young rape victim and an Irish lady who survived the Bataclan [Paris] attack. Sometimes there's too much emphasis on the celeb interviews when, in fact, the conversations that stay with you are with ordinary members of the public with extraordinary stories to tell."

Interestingly, D'Arcy himself says both of those interviews - with Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill and Katie Healy, respectively - are among the ones he is most proud of, and the candid discussions demonstrate just how powerful a medium prime-time television can be. "We're competing with The Late Late for guests, which is an institution older than I am [he's 51], and we have to think outside the box when it comes to the people we book."

The comedian Sean Hughes appears tonight, but another guest, self-help guru Paul McKenna, had to pull out on Wednesday due to what Kealy describes as "a family emergency".

Kealy says chat shows such as this are moneymakers for broadcasters, and rejects as simplistic the notion bandied about this week that taxpayers' money was used to pay for Dean Strang's travel to Ireland and accommodation here.

"The licence fee goes to drama like Fair City and Love/Hate," he says. "The cost-per-hour for something like The Ray D'Arcy Show is far, far less. But - shock-horror - making TV costs money."

And, speaking of money, the subject of D'Arcy's salary has once more been ripe for discussion this week. Although he doesn't divulge the exact figure to Review, he indicates he is paid in the region of, but less than, €400,000 per annum to host his daily radio programme and his chat show.

"I took a cut moving from the commercial world to RTÉ," he says, "but it's not about the money and never has been."

Despite such protestations, some may wonder why RTÉ isn't cultivating more younger talent - hungry broadcasters who don't command such hefty salaries.

"Well, we do actually," one programme-maker at Montrose says. "This week, a new series starring Jennifer Maguire and Bernard O'Shea was launched [a comedy sketch show called Bridget & Eamon] and you've people like Bláthnaid Treacy and Eoghan McDermott coming through. Yvonne Tiernan [wife of comic Tommy] has her own show, too, although it's not something I care for to be honest.

"But it's naïve in the extreme to think you can put a complete newbie in charge of a Saturday night chat show. You can't. You need people who have served their apprenticeship so to speak and, no matter what you might think of him, D'Arcy has certainly done that."

When D'Arcy moved back to RTÉ, he signed a five-year contract. This Saturday night show will be a fixture for some time to come.

"I'm really pleased with it so far," he says, "and I'm enjoying it. But you won't find me getting complacent. I've a lot to learn."

Has the business of presenting such a high-profile chat show been more difficult than he thought it would be? He laughs softly. "No, it hasn't. If anything, it's been easier than I imagined."

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