The weird world of daytime TV
In anticipation of the fact that soon we will all be unemployed and watching daytime TV, we forced Pat Fitzpatrick to sit through some afternoon horror. From ‘Seoige’ to ‘Xpose’, he endured it all so you don’t have to.
It's hard to watch. The Seoiges and Larry Gogan are like those early arrivals at a party who make awkward small talk and laugh a bit too hard at each others' jokes. Larry chats amiably enough, but looks like he's wishing that his friend would hurry back from the toilets and rescue him from the manic grinning on the adjoining couch. The sisters sway along half-heartedly as the intro for 1982 Eurovision winner, A Little Peace, is played. Sile says "fantastic" -- her favourite word -- a little too enthusiastically when Larry announces the video for Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? If it was an actual party, they'd all be boozing hard to get through the awkwardness, praying that the next ring on the doorbell would bring someone they know. But this ain't no party; this is Seoige. It's live horror in the afternoon.
Now, we've never expected much from daytime TV. It's that patronising time of the day when off-peak presenters talk down to the young and the old. About the only people who really care for it are those people on a sickie, who are only delighted to be curled up on the couch with a packet of biscuits and an imaginary illness.
All that is about to change. With unemployment on a rapid march into double figures, daytime TV will soon have a whole new audience of educated people who won't stand for being patronised. Unlike in previous downturns, this group can pick from hundreds of TV stations to while away the hours. Are our local channels geared up to capture this new audience and ease them through the recession?
The Xpose page on TV3's website promises a distraction from all the doom and gloom on RTE's Six One News: "Calling all fashionistas: glitz, glamour and . . . gorgeous people! If the celebs are shimmying down the red carpet, so are the Xpose girls."
As I prepare for my first episode, on the same day that Budget 2008 officially marked the end of the Celtic Tiger, I wonder if a programme about shimmying celebs and fabulous dresses will lift the nation, or just seem in poor taste.
After watching a couple of episodes, I'm not sure if it's in any taste at all. A good chunk of Xpose is taken up with overdressed presenters relaying celebrity gossip that has already been floating around the internet for a couple of days. They showed a protracted excerpt from the new Britney Spears video that I had seen on the Daily Telegraph website about four days earlier. When the Daily Telegraph is scooping you on Britney news by a couple of days, it might be time to think about whether you really are at the leading edge of "all the goss". There was also mention of an Eva Longoria pregnancy rumour, and some apparent problems in Avril Lavigne's marriage, both snippets which I'd heard before.
Who is supposed to be watching this show? The celeb-crazed women at whom it is aimed hoover up their gossip on the internet when it is fresh. They are bound to turn up their noses at Xpose's sloppy seconds. I'm sure that some people tune in to see what Lorraine Keane is wearing -- not so they can copy it, but because it's good to say the words: "Jesus, what's that?" every now and again. One night it looked as if she had arrived wrapped in white plastic and they had only managed to partially unwrap her before she had to go on and introduce the show. Another night, she is in an electric-blue dress and black leggings combo that suggests she couldn't decide between the two outfits, so she settled on the top of one and the bottom of the other.
It wouldn't look so weird if the set made sense. Lorraine anchors the show from what looks like the top of the stairs of an Eighties-era Leeson Street nightclub, as if she is stuck for all time waiting for her friend to stop snogging that accountant so that they can get a cab home.
The co-presenters who bring us stale gossip from the internet do so from what looks like a small corner of the dance floor downstairs. You half expect them to break into a lap dance. It might be worth a try.
At least it might rescue the rest of the show, which is usually little more that a thinly disguised advertisement for some fashion accessory or other. One such piece, to mark the release of the Brideshead Revisited film, featured a couple of male models in a rainy golf resort wearing old- men's clothes; cardigans and caps, that sort of thing. It looked like one of those cheap, old advertisements you used see in the cinema for a men's clothing shop in West Cork called O'Sullivan's Slacks; it didn't look remotely like Brideshead Revisited.
On another episode, they had a shoot of some dresses based on the Sex And The City movie, where they showed a model in a dress, followed by the dress from the movie that is supposed to have inspired it. They were barely similar. The women who were discussing the dresses, women you might conceivably expect to be glamorous, were dressed as if they were calling over to their sister's house to help paint the kitchen. It's a very odd show.
That said, it can be transformed with the slightest of tweaks. I originally thought Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge was an unusually bad chat show, until I realised that it was a brilliant spoof. All Xpose has to do is become a spoof of itself. "Calling all fashionistas: laugh at yourself and us, in this hilarious send-up of a celeb- glamour show." Change nothing else, and they'll have a huge hit.
TV3's other daytime offering, Midday, promises in the listings to take a light-hearted look at the day's news. Given some of that station's other home-grown efforts, you might assume that Midday will be a couple of telegenic Z-listers on cheap sofas, squeezing out celebrity gossip in a studio that they made for €18. This is why I'm surprised when I tune in, to see six people in a brash studio with views out over the Dublin mountains. TV3 doesn't usually stretch to six people. It's a good start.
Colette Fitzpatrick appears to be the presenter of the show because she sits in the middle and has a pen. At least that's what I thought: then, the camera pans to the end of the desk and her news-reading colleague, Alan Cantwell -- who also has a pen -- moves the debate on to the suitability of mobile phones for young teenagers. Just as I'm wondering who is the presenter, and who is on the panel, the camera cuts to the far end of the desk, where pen-holding weather-wizard Martin King tells us they'll be back after the break.
Are they all presenters? Is it a reality-TV show, where one presenter is sent home every week? Or, in these hard times, is it a programme that allows TV3 to squeeze more work out of its stars? I'm half expecting to see the windows behind the panel being cleaned by Mark Cagney, Vincent Browne and Chesney from Coronation Street.
Whatever it is, it works. There is none of the ego-driven smugness or posturing of The Panel or Questions and Answers, such cruel and unusual punishments. Along with the three amigos who present the show, the panel at various times includes a blogger, a personal trainer, an interior decorator, Lord Iveagh, a few journalists and Feargal Quinn. This mix of punters and media types brings freshness to the chatter as they glide across topics such as the Budget, dangerous driving, smacking, and the etiquette of using your phone in the gym.
Midday manages the tricky task of making a chat show seem like an everyday conversation between normal, well-adjusted people. It should attract a whole new audience. Of course, this being Ireland, we will also be watching for any signs of tension between the presenters, hoping that the three amigos thing may break down into a bitchfest over who exactly is the main man or woman on this show.
With Midday over, it's instructive to catch a bit of Oprah before The Afternoon Show. It's a Celine Dion special, where the audience is never more than two minutes away from giving Oprah and Celine their next standing ovation for having so much courage. It's gruesome stuff that has about as much relevance to an Irish audience as a Mexican film with Japanese subtitles. Most of us would prefer to watch Bosco re-runs than sit through this chicken soup with standing ovations.
The familiar Merrion Square backdrop of The Afternoon Show is, therefore, a welcome relief -- even if I'm not expecting the show to do much for me. This part of the RTE schedule, previously occupied by Going Strong, Live at Three and Open House, has long been a support-stocking for the elderly, a time in the day when the television moves a little closer to granny and tells her in a slow, loud voice that things were better long 'go.
At first, it appears that The Afternoon Show has abandoned the pensioners in favour of the modern lady. A few different brands of face-wipes are evaluated by a panel of women who act like they are grading competing elixirs of youth. A frizzy-haired girl is wheeled out to have her curls calmed by the show's resident hairdresser. It works. A handsome Italian chef makes a dessert from white chocolate. Yum and yum, ladies.
Despite going for this Trinny-and-Susannah tone, however, the show can't help acting like it's back in the Seventies talking to granny. A woman called Liz O'Kane, introduced as a property tycoon, tells us in her I-have-to-be-honest-with-you voice that there are currently some problems in the housing market. No shit, Liz. I'm expecting her to advise us next that there has never been a better time to remortgage the house, or buy a Range Rover that runs on champagne, but Liz goes one better and breezily announces that there has never been a better time to buy a house!
Now, you've got to hand it to her, the lady has courage. This is the kind of chutzpah that would get four standing ovations on Oprah, followed by a Celine Dion song called My Heart Believes in Real Estate.
Back here in Ireland, nobody is clapping. Except for those who live down a well and read old copies of the Irish Press, we are all too painfully aware that investing in property now is about as good a move as sending the children's allowance money to that fellow who emailed you claiming to be the son of the president of Nigeria.
In another piece, Sheana Keane introduces a woman as a tax expert, who proceeds to give the kind of tips for reducing your tax bill that will be known to anybody with a phone line who can read. Do you know that you can write off your medical expenses? I do. Everybody does. It's a well-known fact.
Sheana reacts to this top tip as if it were the fourth secret of Fatima, but it just looks like the show is talking down to an audience that no longer exists. Granny has the internet now, and likes to read the business pages.
Getting experts on to give out-of-date, regurgitated or just plain daft advice is patronising to a lot of older viewers and will be a complete turn off when Ireland's new idlers hit the couch and ask The Afternoon Show to help them through the day.
But there is hope for this show and it goes by the name of Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh. In fact, I think Blathnaid must be the Irish for Oprah. Oprah succeeds across the Atlantic because she has the perfect blend of sex appeal, authority and tear-jerking optimism for an American audience. Blathnaid hits our G-spot because she has the ability to switch from mother to lover to the "will you go away out of that ya big eejit" kind of culchie woman that Irish people just love. She even says "oh, lads" when she likes something. It shouldn't work, but it does.
The rest of the crew don't get a look in when she is within sniffing distance of the camera. Sheana Keane looks well, and has a nice manner on her own, but put her next to Blathnaid and she looks a bit brusque and ill at ease. And then there's Trevor Keegan. Trevor has the peculiar habit of tilting his head to one side when addressing the camera, in the manner of a puppy when he's trying to tell you something. You worry that if he stuck his tongue out, Blathnaid might tickle his belly and tell him he's allowed up on the couch just this once.
If The Afternoon Show is ever going to appeal to a new audience, all it needs to do is stop talking down to people and change its name to Blathnaid.
This leaves us with Seoige, a programme that leaves the viewer with so many questions. How much did they pay the state television service of the former East Germany for the set? What crime did Grainne and Sile commit in their past lives that merits this kind of punishment? What crime did I commit in a past life that merits this kind of punishment? Are you sure that was only 55 minutes: it seemed much longer?
Larry Gogan isn't the only personality from RTE radio who gets to sit down with the Seoige sisters. In the couple of days that I watched it, they also had sessions with Ronan Collins and Joe Duffy. You wonder if Seoige isn't a form of detention for people in radio land, where they are sent after work if they go to the news too late, or are a bit too rude to Mary in Clontarf. Joe ambles through a description of a few favourite books. Ronan makes a joke about his moustache before calling for regime-change in Zimbabwe. I don't think anyone expected him to say that. It all has the feel of something they decided on in the canteen a few minutes before going on air.
There is a whiff of desperation about the whole thing. After every guest we are shown a short shot of the remaining attractions on that day's show, which might work if one of them was David Beckham, but seems fanciful when it's actually the Furey Brothers and a guy from Carlow who's afraid of heights.
For reasons that he is probably now discussing with a counsellor, the latter wrote into the show's 'Do I Dare?' slot, which offers to help punters overcome their fears. As he stares into the camera for his coming-up-later shot, it's clear from the petrified look on his face that his fear of heights is nothing compared to his fear of Seoiges. The poor man should have looked for help with overcoming his fear of being on television.
Things look up when a hypnotherapist, that old chestnut of daytime TV, joins him on the couch. I pray that is he going to say: "When I click my fingers, the Seoige sisters will be naked and you will think you're a chicken." I cast my memory back to that time years ago on The Late Late Show, when a hypnotist clicked his fingers and temporarily convinced Gay that his hands were glued together, only for half the viewers to -- somehow -- ring up later and say that he'd hypnotised them too and now their hands were stuck together.
Would I and the few people who were still watching Seoige be forced to ring up and say in a clucking voice that we could see the Seoiges in the nip? Imagine what that would do for the ratings? I should be so lucky. It turns out that there is no on-screen hypnosis, just a promise that they are going to go off to sort it out and they'll be back next Thursday.
I tune in on Thursday, where our man is shown walking across a rope bridge before we see him live in the studio, where I have to say he looks considerably more relaxed about heights and Seoiges. If only he thought he was a chicken.
Sile and Grainne Seoige are talented. The camera likes them, and every now and again there is a glimmer of a better world, such as Grainne's slot with a couple of talking heads on the Budget, when we are reminded that she used to do the news. But between the Soviet-style set, the radio personalities who get detention and the hypnotist who doesn't hypnotise, it's hard to avoid the feeling that Seoige is unloved out in RTE, and won't be with us for long.
With the shorter days and longer dole queues, there has never been a greater need for local talent on our daytime TV. Midday and Blathnaid, along with Xpose as a spoof, would be perfect for the audience that is about to hit the couch.
As for Seoige, it looks like it will be just another victim of the recession.