Saturday 18 November 2017

Where are our new, young TV stars?

As Gay Byrne and Mike Murphy prepare for screen comebacks, television critic Patrick Freyne asks . . .

We're coming up to that time of year again, when the bigshot presenters at RTE head off to the sun for a few weeks and wannabe stand-ins hope to make a name for themselves.

So who are the new faces? Take a bow Gay Byrne (76) and Michael Murphy (69) . . . Yes, the veteran pair are back. Byrne's For One Night Only will air in the summer, and an interview show with Murphy begins in September.

In a recessionary time nostalgia is appealing, so the return of such much-loved presenters is to be expected. But what does that say about the young generation? With Gerry Ryan's sad death, Ryan Tubridy's summer job at the BBC, and the seeming reclassification of 2FM as a music rather than a youth station, it sometimes looks like Byrne's generation will overshadow our national broadcaster forever.

Will there ever be another Gay Byrne? Is he/she amid the crop of younger broadcasters? And if so, who is it? Hector? Baz Ashmawy? Socky?

"I think it would be unfair to compare any of today's presenters with somebody like Gay," says Larry Bass, CEO of Shinawil, makers of The Apprentice and Dragons' Den. "He's unique. Successful presenters worked in various roles within television before presenting and brought a whole world of experience to the role. Often those who come through now go straight into the presenting role and don't have that overview of how the whole show comes together."

Steve Carson, director of television at RTE, believes things have changed beyond recognition since Byrne's heyday. "Mass media has just exploded since then," he says. "Gay Byrne and Mike Murphy developed in a system where television was scarce. The kind of impact you can build with an audience is much more diffuse nowadays. Increasingly what you're seeing is people working across different platforms . . . I think that in some ways going from one-channel land to the multi-media environment has led to a breed of presenters who are closer to the audience through Twitter. They're less mysterious figures, but I think the talent is as strong as it's ever been."

And that talent now has to fight its corner a bit more. There's an increasing tendency to recruit presenters from parallel fields such as comedy, reality television and journalism.

Noel Kelly, Ryan Tubridy's manager, also notes the onslaught of expert-led television, in which people from all sorts of other careers turn television presenter. "Whether it's David Coleman, a psychologist, doing Teens in the Wild and 21st Century Child, Diarmuid Gavin doing Dirty Old Towns or Dr Mark Hamilton doing How Long Will You Live, so many of the new shows are expert-driven. It's making things even more fragmented."

It all leads to a situation where, arguably, presenting talent isn't being developed in the ways it once was. "No one really has the patience to train people up anymore," says Ben Frow, director of programming at TV3. "People who want to be presenters now often just want to be famous."

A career in broadcasting, the kind that connects with people over a lifetime, involves taking the long view. Driven youngsters could still become iconic broadcasters. "But it's all about breadth of experience" says Frow. "People can't have a Gay Byrne or Mike Murphy-type career in their 20s or 30s. It comes with time."

This makes picking champion broadcasters an unpredictable business (just look at my dubious attempts, right). "People aren't selected and hot-housed at a young age," says Carson. "That suggests there's this gilded path to the top laid out for some. There isn't. People get opportunities and work hard and we work with them. But there are certainly some young broadcasters out there who will be very important in years to come."

So you've found the next Gay Byrne then?

"Oh yes, there's this chap I've spotted in the post room," says Carson and he laughs.

"I'm joking."

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