Low-budget 'Today' gives viewers the hard sell
It's hard to know where to begin with Today, the new RTÉ afternoon show broadcast from Cork. The show itself began on Monday with co-host Dáithí Ó Sé congratulating psychologist and cyberbullying expert David Coleman for wearing a pink shirt. "Very brave," was his verdict. A crass and wholly avoidable segue from a segment about soup kitchens to a €1,000 cash giveaway soon followed.
Such clangers are to be expected in the first edition of any live programme - they are creases to be ironed out in the easy-to-wear linen of daytime TV. By the time Ó Sé and designated driver Maura Derrane signed off an hour later the show had already improved its social skills a notch.
More of a worry was the set, which looks like a cross between a teeth-whitening clinic and the USS Enterprise - a pastel holodeck that has been certified MRSA-free. Its vast desk, situated in a limbo of candy pink and baby blue, is something of a surprise given that the show is sponsored by Harvey Norman Sofas. No cosy and inviting couch-and-cushion action here - just kilometres of space between each human, so that the man who appeared on the satellite link from RTÉ's new Athlone Institute of Technology studio seemed closer to the action than the third and outermost panel guest.
Perhaps the rationale was to differentiate Today from Derrane's former vehicle Four Live, which had a perfectly serviceable sofa back in Montrose, before both it and schedule sibling the Daily Show were axed thanks to RTÉ "financial constraints".
How can RTÉ afford Today and not the Four Live/Daily Show twin-pack of chat?
It's because Today ticks a box that its deceased cousins didn't - the box marked "regional". This is a use-it-or-lose-it show.
With budget cutbacks of more than €25 million and counting at RTÉ this year, there had been nervy speculation both within and outside the organisation that the national broadcaster's commitment to regional output was wavering. In the end, the reverse has proven the case.
Today, which employs 15 people full-time, is the biggest RTÉ production ever to base itself in Cork. Though local media have registered their disappointment that none of the four presenters is from the county, the show's presence there has delighted local businesses and public relations consultants, while being hailed by the Lord Mayor of Cork, John Buttimer, as a way for RTÉ to escape the damaging "echo chamber" of the capital.
RTÉ's studios in Athlone, Waterford, Dundalk, Galway and Sligo have closed but been replaced by new facilities within the local institutes of technology, yielding annual savings of €1 million and neatly avoiding the political fallout that would surely have followed any regional retreat.
So while the decision to base Today in Cork may have been sparked by the need to make efficient use of resources, it's still a worthy, laudable idea - even if those train tickets for Dublin-based guests do add up.
Less impressive is the clunkiness with which the sponsored competitions - also a product of RTÉ's poverty - have been dropped into the editorial mix. This week, as well as trumpeting daily cash prizes, the show is dangling a Hyundai car in viewers' faces. Coming on top of those Harvey Norman stings, it seems excessive.
Competitions on live TV are typically deployed as a pre-filmed bridge between items, but on Today the talk seems too small to sustain the sledgehammer sales intrusion. The suspicion that the sterile simplicity of the set - no studio kitchen to complicate affairs - has been dictated by budgetary limitations doesn't help.
RTÉ presenting alumnus Anna Nolan put her finger on it when she described Today as "radio on television" - bizarrely, the kind of teleshopping infomercials that RTÉ One broadcasts in the early mornings stake a claim to being the more visually compelling watch.
This is a shame. Daytime television can be at least as good a companion to the nation's living-rooms as any radio show - a way for anyone who is home-bound but in need of adult company to connect with the world. It all comes back to body language.
Back when Fern Britton presented This Morning with Philip Schofield, the two would frequently collapse in fits of infectious laughter as they delivered links. Viewers came to know and love Judy Finnigan's eye-rolls whenever Richard Madeley started thinking out loud. Me, I'm genuinely happy that Carol McGiffin, the proudly spiky panellist on Loose Women, found a husband after seven years of being "the single one".
Daytime viewers are loyal, they're involved, and they should be treated with respect. But for the whole thing to work, the presenters must seem like intimate friends, not chattering cold callers.