Q&A goes but comes back under another name
Deaglán de Bréadún
There’s a big debate going on about the end of newspapers, at least in their print form. That’s alarming enough but now people are starting to talk about the end of television.
Certainly this is a very challenging time for serious newspapers and serious television programmes. Advertising revenue – the “gintleman that pays the rent” – is way down. But public reading and viewing habits are changing.
We all know about the switch to the Net among newspaper readers. A senior journalist from the New York Times said on a visit here some time ago that he was giving a talk to a group of about 200 students at Princeton University: only one had read that day’s print edition of his newspaper, the others had all taken it online.
The Net, or Web if you like, must be taking viewers away from TV as well. People now have so many choices, even in televisionland itself, although it is often a case of, in Bruce Springsteen’s words, “fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”.
The arrival of Big Brother and other forms of ”reality” TV has been a further blow to serious programming. Time was, when TV was even seen as an educational medium. Does anyone remember Telefís Scoile?
In this context, trying to mount a serious TV discussion programme about politics is a major challenge. RTE’s main contribution to the genre has been Questions and Answers. Now we are told it is to be brought to an end after 23 years.
But a similar type of programme at the same time, also with audience participation, will take its place and already the speculation is under way: who will be the new presenter?
With a programme like this you are to a large extent at the mercy of the political parties. If the main government party (you know who I mean) decide to send a junior minister or backbencher onto the show, that’s a big setback. Even if the junior minister is relatively intelligent and entertaining, he/she just isn’t a player. You have to be in Cabinet.
Another difficulty is trying to rustle up an audience on a Monday night. People have better things to be doing and it just doesn’t have the cachet of the Late Late Show. Q&A has beefed-up the audience with invited guests. What’s irritating is that these are not identified as such – although you can usually make a reasonable guess.
Personally speaking, I tend to watch Q&A from the start-time of about 10.30 until 11.00 pm when I usually switch over to Vincent Browne’s show on TV3. By that stage the major issue of the day has usually been covered on Q&A and I’m unlikely to miss anything vital in the second half.
Browne’s show has the entertainment value that drew the crowds to the Colosseum in Rome all those centuries ago. His interview technique reminds me of the Bad Guy in the old cowboy movie who whips out his six-gun in the saloon and starts firing shots into the floor beside the feet of a frightened fellow-customer, with the accompanying mantra, “Dance, boy, dance!”
I know it’s the Theatre of Cruelty, but it’s very entertaining. You can nearly always be sure that the man or woman – usually a politician from one of the government parties – sitting in the chair nearest to Browne is going to get it in the neck. The other guests are really just a chorus.
You couldn’t have that on the National Broadcaster because you are in the realm of Official Ireland and it would be considered unseemly. What a pity. Browne also draws from a wider pool of journalists for his panel: some faces you just don’t tend to see on Q&A. It’s a bit of a talking-point in some media circles.
It doesn’t sound like RTE is going to go for a new format with its replacement for Q&A. Perhaps there will be a greater emphasis on “yoof” (youth) which is a longstanding and traditional slogan among executives right across all branches of the media who have no other ideas rolling around in their heads.
One big improvement would be to bring the programme forward to 9.30 or 10 pm so we could all get to bed a little earlier. What is it about politics programmes that the stations feel they have to put them out so late at night? Is there a big audience for political debate among insomniacs?