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TV revolution battling to win the current affairs war

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Claire Byrne

Claire Byrne

Pat kenny

Pat kenny

Chris Donoghue is part of UTV's Ireland Live

Chris Donoghue is part of UTV's Ireland Live

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Claire Byrne

David Nally gave serious thought to resurrecting Questions & Answers. The head of RTE Current Affairs was keen to shake up RTE 1's offering and thought a tweaked, updated version of the panel and audience show that had been hosted by John Bowman for more than two decades might be a welcome addition to the schedule five years after it had been dropped.

But then he considered the strengths of several other former RTE shows - including The Frontline, which had been presented by Pat Kenny - and decided that marrying aspects of each might deliver a programme that people would want to watch at 10.30 on a Monday night. The result is Claire Byrne Live and it will air for the first time in January.

The New Year is set to be manna for Ireland's current affairs junkies, the new entrant to the market, UTV Ireland, will have a nightly one-hour show called Ireland Live at 10 while TV3 is banking on a glut of own-made documentaries, aired directly before Vincent Browne's nightly show, to bolster its impact. RTE will be hoping that a host of Prime Time specials, made by the station's investigations unit, will cement its status as the country's premier outlet for quality current affairs programming.

"We Irish have a special enthusiasm for current affairs," David Nally says, "and that's reflected in the fact that Prime Time is shown on a primetime slot. In Britain, in the past, you had important programmes like World In Action on at those key slots but that just doesn't happen now."

Although it was only announced this week, Claire Byrne Live has been in planning stages for several months. "Claire is one of the new generation of Irish current affairs broadcasters," says Nally of the journalist who cut her teeth on TV3 and Newstalk before rising up the ranks at RTE. "And she has developed into a really outstanding current affairs presenter."

No sooner had RTE announced the show than people were drawing comparisons to the short-lived Frontline, whose axing at Nally's hands is thought to have precipitated Pat Kenny's defection from the national broadcaster to Newstalk last year. And this week, the veteran broadcaster made it clear that the demise of The Frontline still rankles with him. "I wish Claire the best," he told this newspaper, "but obviously none of this would have happened if RTE hadn't killed The Frontline in the first place. "Let them at it - it won't affect my show," he added, referring to his upcoming UTV Ireland series, which will launch in March 2015.

Nally has no regrets about bringing the curtain down on The Frontline. "Its ratings towards the end were a long way off what it was when it started," he said. "We thought there was a certain staidness to our current affairs offering at the time, a certain predictability, and we wanted to revitalise it. We did that by bringing people like Claire Byrne in and getting Pat [Kenny] and Miriam [O'Callaghan] to present together."

Nally points to the hard-hitting work of RTE's investigations unit to illustrate the broadcaster's commitment to high-end current affairs programming. "We faced a challenge after Fr Reynolds [a reference to the ill-fated Prime Time Investigates report that resulted in RTE paying substantial damages to the Galway-based priest] and I think we've delivered some top notch broadcasting since then, including that brilliant report into perinatal deaths at Portlaoise Hospital. Those sort of reports - which can take four or five months to put together - require a lot of money and support." It is, he says, an opportunity to steal a march on its competitors.

TV3 has upped its game in recent times and, having lost big rated shows like Coronation Street to UTV Ireland, it's putting more emphasis on home-grown content, including a batch of current affairs documentaries. "When we shut [topical weekly show] Midweek down, we decided to put staff and resources from that into our documentaries," says the station's head of current affairs, Andrew Hanlon.

The fruits of that work could be seen earlier this week on an hour-long special, Ireland, What's Next? The Housing Crisis - a well received documentary presented by Matt Cooper. Hanlon is bullish about the future. "We will be delivering a mix of fast- turnaround stuff and documentaries that take much longer to put together. Already this year we've tackled some of the most pressing current affairs issues - everything from 'Tuam Babies' to Ireland's Ebola readiness and to the Garth Brooks debacle - and in the New Year, we hope to air a documentary on the Ian Bailey trial."

Despite the rise of such programming, TV3's key current affairs offering remains Tonight With Vincent Browne, which has been on air for seven years. "Even if people don't like Vincent's style of presentation, they still feel compelled to watch it," Hanlon says. "He continues to deliver a loyal audience for us and if the ratings weren't there it wouldn't have survived this long."

Hanlon believes there are only a modest number of current affairs broadcasters who have "the X-factor that Vincent has" and notes that just as the late RTE presenter Brian Farrell was a "colossus" of his age, Browne is a giant of this social media-addicted one. "Vinb [a reference to the show's Twitter hashtag] makes Twitter light up.

"To a large degree, successful current affairs broadcasting today is as much about the presenter as it is about the programme. That's why I would have been more concerned if UTV had put Pat Kenny on the 10pm show."

It's still unknown quite what the network have in mind for Kenny - the commission to produce a show bearing his name was put out to tender in recent weeks - and viewers won't get to see him in his new incarnation until at least eight weeks after UTV Ireland goes on air on January 1. Until that point, it will be the anchors of Ireland Live at 10 - Chris Donoghue and Alison Comyn - who will bear much of the weight of expectation. "They've been getting on like a house on fire," says UTV Ireland MD Michael Wilson. "They've been in today to look around the new set and they've already done a lot of work in rehearsals. I've every confidence that they will appeal to viewers because they're very good journalists and are warm, friendly and accessible."

Wilson says Ireland Live at 10 will be "an intelligent programme for an intelligent audience" and will offer a mix of news bulletins, business stories, sport and long form reports. "There will be interviews and analysis, of course, but we want to add light, not heat, to debates. We don't want scenarios where people of opposing viewpoints are shouting over each other."

This week, the editorial team at UTV Ireland moved into its newly refurbished office in Dublin's Docklands, and Wilson says the corridors are charged with expectation. "It's exciting to be launching a new service for Ireland," he says, "and with the huge appetite for current affairs here, we want to get the mix right from the off."

Michael Foley, head of the school of journalism at DIT and a former media correspondent for a national newspaper, hopes the increased competition will not result in a dumbing down of current affairs. "I know it's an old-fashioned viewpoint, but I really liked the Today Tonight-style of broadcasting of people like Brian Farrell. He brought real gravitas to the role. It was more about getting to the heart of the story, rather than entertainment."

Foley is not an admirer of audience-participation programmes, especially as they have a tendency to descend into shouting matches. "At the end of the day, you watch current affairs to be informed, not to see some kind of Joe Duffy-type show on television, even though I admire what Duffy does on radio. I don't want something that's posing as entertainment and I think if people are honest with themselves, part of the reason they watch Vincent Browne is for that unpredictable, entertainment value."

The lecturer is also concerned that "too often the ones who are making the key decisions are hiding behind others".

He says he has become weary of junior ministers and backbenchers being wheeled out on current affairs programmes to defend the actions of ministers and their more senior colleagues. "What purpose does this serve? Very little more often than not.

"At its best," Foley says, "current affairs on television can be wonderfully compelling - especially when painstakingly researched investigations programmes get to the heart of a story."

David Nally, meanwhile, says the beauty of current affairs on TV is the variety. "Yes, the investigative work is important of course, but so too is the sense that Irish people are having their voices heard. That's why we're hoping that a programme like Claire Byrne Live will really connect with viewers.

"The important thing is that the main stories of the day are covered in a thoughtful, informative and compelling fashion."

For Michael Wilson, it's all about "engagement" with an audience. "UTV has a track record of doing that in the North of Ireland," he says. "And thanks to 90 minutes of prime time current affairs coverage each day [the 10pm show, plus an earlier half-hour news bulletin] we're going to engage with viewers in the Republic too."

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