Saturday 26 May 2018

Why does RTÉ persist with a format well past its sell-by date?

Schmooze fest: Channel 4's Graham Norton has both charisma and A-list guests on his sofa.
Schmooze fest: Channel 4's Graham Norton has both charisma and A-list guests on his sofa.

John Boland

One of the minor, though not insignificant, perks to be had from writing a Saturday television review is that you can blithely ignore both the previous night's Late Late Show, which is screened too late for consideration, and that night's Ray D'Arcy show, which won't be of the remotest interest to readers a week later.

That's a blessing, because Ryan Tubridy's Friday night approach to interviewing mostly suggests a man politely ticking guests off a list, while D'Arcy's Saturday night demeanour is even less engaged, as if his interviewees are somehow a distraction from the main business of showcasing his own chirpy-chappie persona. (His predecessor, Brendan O'Connor, at least seemed interested in his guests).

But then the decline in potency of the television chat show isn't simply about lacklustre hosts, even if The Graham Norton show indicates that a ­presenter's oomph can go a long way in luring viewers to an antiquated format. It helps, of course, that Norton can attract real A-list ­celebrities to his schmooze-fest, whereas his RTÉ counterparts generally count themselves lucky if they snag a troubled boyband member or ­washed-up soap actress.

The format itself, though, is washed up and has been for decades - a fact long recognised by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, if not by RTÉ, which plainly clings to the notion that if it worked for Gay Byrne in the 1960s and 1970s, then it must be equally viable today.

It isn't. In fact, the conventional chat show really only had an impact in an era when celebrities were fewer and people more credulous - the format starting in the early 1950s when someone in NBC had the bright idea of getting Broadway performers to end their night on stage by dropping into the studios for a chat.

So it was always celebrity-based, a fact not helpful to Irish television in its early days when there were few home-grown stars and even fewer international names willing to make flying visits to the RTÉ studios. Hence the genius of Gay and his early Late Late, which almost from the beginning opted to be less a chat show than a countrywide confessional, in which social, religious and sexual issues were often furiously debated. But even in terms of its celebrity content, that early Late Late operated during an era when a garrulous old ham like Peter Ustinov (Peter who, under forties will ask) was considered a guest worthy of such excitement, indeed of awe, that he was invited back again and again.

That era is long gone, replaced by a culture in which the insistence of social media that everyone's a celebrity, even for burping 'Jingle Bells' on YouTube, means that the whole notion of celebrity has become so demeaned as to be almost meaningless.

The increasing cynicism of viewers, especially younger viewers, was foreseen across the water when Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan's cosy celebrity love-ins were replaced by a more ironic and irreverent style of interviewing, from the smart-assery of Jonathan Ross and the gleeful rudery of Norton to the outright, and often savage, piss-takes of Mrs Merton - as when she asked magician Paul Daniel's wife what had first attracted her to her multimillionaire husband.

RTÉ, though, didn't get the message, instead doggedly persisting with both outdated formats and presenters incapable of constructing a persona that would become, in the manner of Ross or Norton, a show's main raison d'être.

Norton, as it happens, has opted to abandon his wicked side in favour of sycophantic flattery, but his guests are so stellar and his exuberance so unabated that you still watch him.

Sadly, we don't have a Norton (well, in terms of nationality we did, but he chose to find fame across the water) and in the past two decades have had to content ourselves with a succession of presenters who've been both uneasy in their ungainly chat-show format and unable to transcend its outmoded blend of sob story and schmoozing.

It defeated our most distinguished current-affairs presenter, Pat Kenny, as he vainly attempted to show that he could be all things to all people; it's currently defeating Ryan Tubridy, even if he plainly doesn't think so; while RTÉ's incessant plugs for D'Arcy's show suggest that it has become desperate to justify its faith in the current Saturday night chat-show host.

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