Wednesday 17 January 2018

RTE should prepare to stretch the boundaries

If Pat Kenny retires, the station should avoid panicking and start taking creative chances, writes Emer O'Kelly

Emer O'Kelly

CAD a dheinaimid feasta gan adhmad? I haven't written that since I was at school, so the spelling may be a bit off. For those as poorly educated in Irish as I was, loosely translated it means, "What will we do when the woods are gone?" And the wood in this question is a certain Mr Pat Kenny.

If rumour is to be believed, the higher echelons in RTE are convulsed with terror at what will happen should their Number One broadcaster decide to retire. (He has recently turned 60.)

That is probably of great advantage to Kenny, who recently (also according to rumour) renegotiated an extremely lucrative contract to keep him on board. And he deserves every cent of it. He is one of the great advertising pullers for RTE. It is irrelevant that in the prime slot of daily mid-morning radio and Friday night prime-time TV, Auntie Fanny would probably pull in the advertising revenue. And it is entirely relevant that RTE doesn't have a replacement with the gravitas capable of holding together its flagship radio and television slots. So they're stuck with Pat.

I mean no disrespect to him; he's a supreme professional and indeed a good friend of mine. But there is effectively no alternative to RTE in Irish broadcasting. So why is it not prepared to stretch boundaries, invest in some serious grooming, and take creative chances?

"Serious" broadcasting is for the old guard. When they go, panic ensues in the ranks and RTE comes up with a familiar solution: the replacement is going to have a "lighter" mix in its complexion. Sometimes it seems that if RTE gets any lighter, it will float into the ether. And this unbearable lightness of being is all aimed at chasing the independent sector further down the road of ratings, until we are in danger of a national consensus aimed solely at the teenage market.

The opposition of "independent broadcasting" is in no position to offer a credible alternative to RTE in terms of quality. They are totally dependent on their commercial pulling power.

We're supposed to depend on RTE as our public broadcaster to give us the quality in terms of insight, intellectual stimulation, in-depth analysis and intelligent entertainment. Sometimes that can cost a lot of money; at other times it just requires a bit of innovative thinking. And, of course, presenters of talent and intelligence, more committed to doing a good job than being "personalities". At least that's the idea. It's what RTE is charged with under the terms of the Broadcasting Act.

Instead, it feeds us an increasingly mindless diet of its own poor imitations of American and British popular programmes, leavened with direct imports of bland sitcoms, which certainly don't occupy prime-time slots in their countries of origin as they do here.

As I write, the current RTE Guide is in front of me. The cover features Pamela Flood, Linda Martin, and Charlie Bird, all household names in this little island of ours, but working in what should be seen as vastly differing areas of broadcasting. They are all about to appear in a series called Who Do You Think You Are? in which they trace their ancestral roots.

Now what does that remind you of? And do you really care about the ancestral roots of people in a small population with an entirely homogeneous heritage?

Like everyone else who saw the original BBC version of that programme, I was fascinated and touched to see Jeremy Paxman break down in tears when he discovered the appalling hardship and poverty his grandparents had suffered less than 100 years ago. It was revealing and touching because Paxman was acting out of character. He is an arrogant, tough interviewer who does his homework meticulously and shows no mercy to his political interviewees. And he's private; he doesn't compromise his broadcasting persona. Nor do his employers expect him to.

Our pool of talent is so small that the entire country knows exactly what Charlie Bird's lifestyle and personal circumstances are. He is an RTE "personality", to be wheeled out in each and every situation ... ad nauseam.

Again, I mean no disrespect to Bird as the national broadcaster's star reporter. But he is meant to be a working journalist, not a personality star. It muddies the waters of credibility when supposedly serious journalists become personality acts.

We don't expect RTE to send Twink to cover a national disaster. And when Twink sobs all over the newspapers about her broken marriage and allows the most intimate details of her private life to be put in the public domain, well, that's what "personalities" do; they thrive on publicity.

But we don't actually need to know who Charlie Bird's grandparents were. We certainly don't need a programme about who his grandparents were. Unless, of course, they were axe murderers, or something equally unusual.

Equally, Miriam O'Callaghan is as famous for being a mother of seven children, but having had difficulty "getting going" in that area, as she is for being a current affairs programme presenter. Clearly she has no problem talking about her difficulties conceiving her children, in that she frequently talks about it in public. But do we need to know that as an adjunct to doing her job? Would she not be as good a journalist, and as worthy of her high salary, if we knew nothing about her private life? Or is RTE so unsure of the quality of its serious broadcasters that it feels it necessary to parade their personal lives to turn them into "personalities"?

It seems that RTE is so terrified of trusting the intelligence of its audience that it wants its premier broadcasters to be all things to all people. It has a deep mistrust of seriousness, and seems to have an even deeper mistrust of intellect when it casts the people whose forte is serious commentary and analysis as caperers in an ever-descending spiral of "celebrity".

We need personality broadcasting, even on the national station; but that should not mean a reduction in standards or, for that matter, in the personal dignity of the broadcasters involved.

Ryan Tubridy is an intelligent man and a good broadcaster. But he seems to have been set an impossible task, at least on radio: his programme has evolved into a popular arts slot, clearly because of his own preferences, which a confident employer would regard as his strength. Instead, his "young fogey" personality has been overlaid with an aura of 2FM hip, which sits uneasily on the man and his slot.

Being hip, or trying to be, seems to be RTE's credo in chasing ratings. But it does not seem to realise that being hip cannot be forced and that in any case some people just aren't that way inclined. Equally, being hip doesn't actually require vacuous and mindless babble. Where, for instance, is the new Gerry Ryan? Ryan made his name being outrageous; but he's a highly intelligent man, and none of that persona came off the top of his head. In today's world of broadcasting, being outrageous seems to consist merely of slinging usually salacious insults at people. And that can become as tiresome as the interviewer who refuses to listen, as is frequently the case with Eamon Dunphy, who seems to prefer his own insights to those of his guests. Yet, it is rumoured in RTE that he was signed up for his interview series, at vast expense to RTE, solely to stop him working for anyone else. It seemed not to have struck the programmers that Dunphy had already worked, unsuccessfully, for the other stations. But once again, RTE fell for ego over content.

Gay Byrne confided recently, laughing at himself for being "an elderly curmudgeon", that in a conversation he had with a very senior executive in RTE about falling standards, the executive replied, "You don't think we care, do you?" It's sad, and it's going to get sadder.

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