THREE nights ago, 333,000 viewers saw Pat Kenny being abused about his salary by a member of RTE1's 'The Frontline' audience.
A few minutes earlier, 493,000 viewers had been watching as Bill Cullen fired Ruth from TV3's 'The Apprentice', and later 297,000 ignored 'The Frontline' to observe Ruth's non-appearance on TV3's 'The Apprentice: You're Fired'.
Naturally, the commercial channel's bosses are thrilled by these figures, even if they shouldn't make the mistake of trying to compare the trivial appeal of a reality contest show with the serious and important public broadcasting service provided by Pat Kenny's show, which deserves to be aired no matter what its audience ratings.
But on the same night and in the same general time slot, RTE2 was screening 'Republic of Telly', 'Karl Spain Wants to Rock' and 'Sarah and Steve', three light entertainment shows introduced this autumn that are intended to grab large audiences but that are failing miserably in that aim -- a week ago, 'Republic of Telly' could only attract 113,000 viewers, while the Karl Spain show managed to ensnare a miserable 67,000.
And when TV3 adds to its 'Apprentice' success the huge ratings winner that is 'The X Factor' every weekend, RTE is faced with a real audience problem. Quite simply, RTE's light entertainment shows aren't pulling in the audiences that were plainly expected and that are crucially needed by our so-called national broadcaster.
TV3, of course, has the easier weapon in this ratings battle in that the shows generating its highest audience figures are either bought in from abroad ('The X Factor', 'The Graham Norton Show', 'Emmerdale', 'Coronation Street') or are based slavishly on templates taken from foreign shows ('The Apprentice' and the Keith Barry version of 'Deal or No Deal', which starts tomorrow night).
Meanwhile, RTE spends most of its energy and much of the taxpayer's money in generating home-created and home-produced entertainment shows. The problem is that most of these shows have not only been no good (some are wretched) but that they're also failing to attract the younger audience they so desperately crave -- the RTE2 schedule being the main offender.
Indeed, after years of filling its schedules with imported dross, TV3 is suddenly beginning to look like a serious contender, not just with the shows mentioned above but with home-produced regulars such as 'Tonight with Vincent Browne', the Wednesday night 'Midweek' and some arresting documentaries. TG4 is even more impressive in its range of home-produced factual programming, but in ratings terms it's not a player.
TV3 is, though, and if the effect of its current successes is to force RTE to up its game, so much the better for viewers.