Thursday 13 December 2018

Is it too late to save the Late Late?

TV insiders speculate on the iconic show's future as Kenny steps down

Putting the boot in: Pat Kenny with Brigitte
Nielsen on The Late Late Show. Below, Gay Byrne
kisses singer Sinead O'Connor during his tenure on
the Late Late
Putting the boot in: Pat Kenny with Brigitte Nielsen on The Late Late Show. Below, Gay Byrne kisses singer Sinead O'Connor during his tenure on the Late Late

Type the words "Pat" and "Kenny" into YouTube and the first two videos must make for painful viewing for the host of The Late Late Show.

The first, entitled "Pat Kenny humiliated on The Late Late Show by posh woman", shows footage of a competition winner who declines tickets for the Toy Show. The visibly flustered host tears up the ticket while an audience member shouts at him to put the phone down. It's been viewed more than 67,000 times.

The second, "Pat Kenny heckled and attacked live on The Late Late Show", finds the host trying to calm a stage invader who repeatedly calls him an "arsehole". That's been watched 374,000 times.

Now that the 61-year-old is to quit the show at the end of the season, he won't be just getting his Friday nights back -- as he quaintly put it while making his surprise announcement on last week's show -- he may be earning a reprieve from those who like to take his more embarrassing Late Late moments and put them on YouTube for worldwide edification.

Footage of his much-derided interview with musician Pete Doherty is up there, too, as is the moment where he introduces comedian Jerry Seinfeld as "Jerry Seinfield". Kenny's acknowledged strengths -- such as his ability to handle political debate -- are absent from YouTube.

"The YouTube thing may be unfair on Kenny, but it does reflect the fact that he's negatively perceived by a large chunk of the population," says one of the top TV producers in the country. "And that's been the problem with the Late Late -- for all the good things on it, and there are many -- it's the embarrassing car-crash stuff that people remember. Unfortunately for Kenny, there have been too many of those. Remember that interview with Brigitte Nielsen? Christ!"

The producer -- who does not wish to be named because "I work in RTE and it would be career suicide to go public like this" -- believes the next Late Late Show presenter "needs to get the balance right between the light and shade" if the programme is to rediscover past glories.

"Unlike lots of people in this business, I don't think the show needs root-and-branch change. I like the mix of serious discussion and frivolity -- I just think that the show needs a host of Gay Byrne's calibre and a really strong team supporting him for that to work. Unfortunately, there's nobody around good enough -- not [Ryan] Tubridy, who will almost certainly get the job, Miriam [O'Callaghan] or Grainne bloody Seoige."

Will Hanafin, who worked on The Late Late Show under Gay Byrne in his final season, and Pat Kenny for his first four years as host, reckons Ray D'Arcy would be the best candidate.

"Obviously I'm biased" -- Hanafin produces D'Arcy's Today FM morning show -- "but I think Ray would offer so much more than either Tubridy or Miriam O'Callaghan. He's knowledgeable and likeable and a consummate broadcaster. There's nothing smug about him.

"It's pretty dismal when you think about it that everybody seems to be talking about those two [Tubridy and O'Callaghan] because I don't think either would offer any improvement to the show as it is. And that show needs to be changed a lot."

Hanafin believes that its two-hour run time is too long. "It needs to be slimmed down, that's for sure. But more importantly than that, the people behind the scenes need to work harder at finding better guests and more interesting topics than simply going to the RTE canteen and seeing whoever is available.

"That would never have happened during Gay's time. He was producer as well as presenter and a really hard taskmaster -- he was always egging us to find the best guests we could. Now, it just seems so complacent -- with the same old RTE faces cropping up all the time. That's just lazy.

"But then, when they get a good guest they can mess it up -- Pat's interview with Pete Doherty sticks in the memory for all the wrong reasons. He only wanted to talk about the drugs thing and didn't know anything about Doherty outside of that. He looked flummoxed when Doherty, quite rightly, asked him if he could name any of his songs. Pat should have been briefed much better and he and his researchers need to take the blame for that."

Despite such criticism, The Late Late Show continues to pull in impressive figures. It is consistently RTE's highest rated show, attracting an average of 650,000 viewers per episode. The economic downturn is thought to have helped to keep numbers up as a result of more people saving money by staying in on a Friday night, but in an age where a good chunk of the population has access to over 100 channels, its performance is not to be sniffed at.

"There would be an outcry if RTE pulled the Late Late," Will Hanafin insists. "It is a national institution and most of us have grown up with it and have a place for it in our hearts. And it can still provoke conversation like no other show -- I didn't see the debate on the Seanad the other week but I heard good things about it. That's the show's strength and in the difficult times we're in at the moment there's ample opportunity to generate really lively talking points. It can be done -- and that's the challenge for the next presenter."

Inevitably, Gay Byrne -- the show's host for 37 years -- has been canvassed for his opinion. He believes it offers RTE the chance to take a punt on an as- yet-unknown talent -- just like he was in 1962 when the show launched.

It was Byrne's considerable broadcasting skills that helped turn a late-night niche programme that originally aired at 11.30pm on Saturdays into a cultural sensation with enormous, catch-all appeal. "And to keep it on that platform for many years," Hanafin says.

Despite its current impressive ratings, Michael Cullen, editor of Marketing magazine, believes the brand is not as strong as it was.

"It's probably seen as a bit fusty, old-fashioned, not very cool," he says. "I think if Ryan Tubridy got the job it might have more appeal to the younger market that advertisers want to reach. He's got the ability to do the light, youth-oriented stuff well, but wouldn't turn off an older audience. It's quite a difficult juggling act to appeal to such a wide demographic."

The Late Late Show has not had a sponsor this season, unlike Tubridy Tonight. Cullen believes a change of presenter and a refreshment of the formula will make the show appealing to marketers again -- even in recessionary times. "It's still RTE's flagship show -- the crown jewels -- so I think they would be able to command €1m per season from a sponsor."

Meanwhile, Pat Kenny has been defending his tenure as host -- pointing to high ratings and "tens of millions" in advertising revenue brought in during his time.

His own move -- to a political programme in the slot vacated by Questions & Answers on Mondays -- is likely to be a cause for celebration for those who have long felt he should focus on his strengths: teasing out the political and socio-economic intrigue rather than interviewing the latest pop star.

In December 2007, when rounding up a year of television, this newspaper's TV critic John Boland expressed a wish that Pat Kenny "our outstanding radio broadcaster, can become the Brian Farrell of his generation or this country's Jeremy Paxman -- the authoritative embodiment of concerned current affairs on television".

Some 16 months later, that wish is about to come to fruition. But the show Kenny vacates faces a more uncertain future.

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