'The Frontline' is dead, long live a revamped 'Prime Time'
Media & Marketing:So long The Frontline. We never quite got on. I know Pat Kenny is sad that his current affairs “brand” is being abandoned by RTÉ after three and a half years, but I can’t say I feel the same.
Bring on next week’s arrival of the thrice-weekly Prime Time, and what RTÉ director-general Noel Curran promised staff this week will be a “renewal” within the broadcaster in 2013. This is not about Tweetgate – that was merely a manifestation of a problem format.
“You assemble an audience . . . you insist that you’re going to go from one to the other, not allowing anybody to finish. And then you turn to the camera, and say ‘That is all we have time for, I’m afraid.’”
More than a year before the notorious presidential debate, that’s how Michael D Higgins assessed “really bad programmes like The Frontline”. It’s tempting, of course, to regard any programme that makes politicians squirm as a good thing. But the mismatch between the platitudes of the political class and the inconvenient facts provided by the audience swiftly became repetitive, with the discussion often going nowhere slowly.
It was uneven. Sometimes audience members told their stories in an open, unedited fashion that could not be bettered. Other times, you came away craving the craft of a prepared report where a journalist could shape those stories and place them in context.
Roving mics have their place on television. Shows such as BBC One’s The Big Questions, which airs at 10am on Sundays, use the audience format for holding “a series of moral, ethical and religious debates”. It works, because the questions asked are not ones to which there is a definitive answer. A little bit of a meander around a topic is the whole point.
By contrast, The Frontline’s speakers often had knowledge of specific cutbacks that prompted blank expressions, never mind any justification, from ministerial faces. The audience, regularly comprising the many victims of austerity, would be hard-pressed to come away from the RTÉ studio feeling in any way satisifed with the empty promises and emergency damage-limitation words they heard back from officialdom. It was all bear pit, no grill.
Although the programme wrapped up on Monday night (with a clarification that SuperValu burgers “did not contain any evidence of horse meat whatsoever”), The Frontline isn’t strictly dead, it’s just regenerating into what will hopefully become more focused debates that don’t fall into the trap of becoming counter-productively overambitious.
Tuesday night will be audience night on the new Prime Time, which will be presented on a rotating roster by the trio of journalists that beam out from the cover of this week’s RTÉ Guide – Kenny, Miriam O’Callaghan and the ascendant Claire Byrne.
This revamp of Prime Time, instigated by managing director of RTÉ News and Current Affairs Kevin Bakhurst, is being carried out by reporter-turned-editor Donogh Diamond, who has been busy conducting dry runs in its new set over the past fortnight. The new format is expected to be looser, incorporating reports, interviews, panel discussions and, yes, regular audience participation (with the audience size varying).
The show won’t, in other words, be so easily lampooned by Irish Pictorial Weekly as “One of Those Programmes”.
In fact, the new format sounds Newsnighty, which is great, but not without its challenges – Prime Time’s reporting budget now has to be spread over three nights. The show isn’t just subsuming The Frontline under its name, it will also become one of the homes for the output of the new multi-media RTÉ Investigations Unit headed by Paul Maguire.
On the investigative front, the big risk is, as the retired head of broadcast compliance Peter Feeney signalled,
being too cautious in the wake of the Prime Time Investigates libel and Tweetgate. Feeney probably didn’t steady any nerves when he noted to this newspaper that “a third own goal would be a complete disaster”.
The disasters of the past, both editorial and financial, were the subtext of an address Curran gave to RTÉ’s sub-1,800 remaining employees on Monday and Tuesday. He spoke about an “extraordinary turnaround” in its financial position, suggested “the worst of the cuts are over” and cited the major changes in news programming as part of this “process of renewal”. After “substantial losses” for 2012, financial stability will return to RTÉ in 2013, he said.
As for the arrival in the Prime Time fold of journalist-turned-politician-turned-journalist George Lee, I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got time for.