The volatile Buddhist who showed RTÉ how it's done
A mere 30 years to the month after the BBC launched Breakfast Time, RTÉ hit the ground running this week with Morning Edition, loping on to commercial territory that TV3’s Ireland AM had traversed unimpeded for more than 13 years.
Though sluggish in following TV3 in this instance, the public-service broadcaster has in recent years generally been nimbler in responding to its commercial rival, in the process paying a backhanded compliment to Ben Frow, the independent station’s director of content, who has returned whence he came six years ago, to the British station Channel 5, where this week he began work in an equivalent role. He replaced Jeff Ford, who, in an astute move, has been hired by TV3’s chief executive, David McRedmond, to replace Frow.
One of the more remarkable individuals to have left a mark on the Irish media, Frow did not command the brute power of RTÉ’s director general or managing director of television but was perhaps more influential than either, partly because his transformation of TV3’s output showed the effect of outstanding leadership but also because of the RTÉ response his success prompted.
When Frow arrived at TV3 it relied almost entirely on imports, with a dearth of factual programmes in its schedules and little home-produced content other than news. In contrast, despite the deep cuts to his budgets that led Frow to resign, TV3 has domestically produced drama, documentaries and comedy this season, plus a handful of studio-based daily programmes.
A self-contained, dapper man whose background as a dressmaker led him into television as wardrobe man to Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, Frow imposed his instincts and tastes on TV3’s schedule so completely that within four years of his arrival he had, despite shoestring budgets, not only improved ratings but also turned TV3’s domestic output into an eloquent expression of his personality and vision.
A Buddhist, and by his own account a highly emotional man given to volatile moods, Frow fizzes with ideas and is trusted by programme-makers because he trusts them and is passionate about their work. With a snout for unlikely talent that earlier turned Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsay into stars, he favoured at TV3 left-field presenters such as Nora Owen, whom he hired for Celebrity Mastermind. Supremely uninterested in the mechanics of programme-making, he is obsessed by shows’ titles and emotional sell, which for him are usually entwined, Tallafornia belonging to a lineage that includes Botched Up Bodies and Too Posh to Wash.
Although in his first couple of years at TV3 he shamelessly bought in shock docs – Half Ton Man, World’s Oldest Conjoined Twins – so emetic that an RTÉ executive accused him of “trawling the gutter” for ratings (a judgment he did not demur from) Frow then ratcheted the station a few notches upmarket, extending its range with cheap but adventurous shows such as Tonight with Vincent Browne, which he got on air for a minuscule €1,000 per edition, colonising previously uncharted schedule territory so successfully that RTÉ shelved a mooted rival programme.
RTÉ’s response was more obvious in areas such as competitive scheduling, which Frow disdained but the public-service broadcaster embraced. Seemingly simple but no less forbidding than Vulcan chess, TV scheduling demands extrasensory anticipation of public tastes and moods. Frow had the confidence to decide his schedules and leave them largely alone, but RTÉ assumed a defensive crouch from which it tinkered continually with its programme line-up.
More significantly, RTÉ further narrowed its range, steering closer to the middle of the road, dispensing with relatively costly outlying strands such as Arts Lives, reducing much of its factual output to celebrity-fronted Pablum and bulking out its schedules with entertainment vehicles that harvested revenue via audience text messages.
In this, RTÉ has reacted not only to Frow but also to the recession. At a station where despite a decade of redundancy rounds staff numbers remain at about 2,000, minority-interest programme budgets are first against the wall when cuts are made.
The irony is that RTÉ grew to maturity producing, on vanishingly small budgets, intelligent, engaging programmes aimed at a wide range of viewers. Somewhere along the way it lost the ability or the will to make such programmes, abandoning to radio swathes of its potential TV audience.
It’s tempting to think RTÉ could do with a touch of the democratic centralism Frow enjoyed, flattening management, encouraging further efficiency and allowing creativity freer rein. But Frow’s success was in part a result of TV3’s smaller scale and greater manoeuvrability. What RTÉ perhaps needs to do is ignore TV3 as much as is prudent, renew its Reithian principles and produce some portfolio-quality programmes to compensate for the river of pap.
Working with decimated budgets, the best Ford can hope for is perhaps to tread water until the economy improves or, less likely, TV3’s ultimate owner, Doughty Hanson, loosens the purse strings. With its new studios vastly increasing its production capacity, the station risks being all dressed up with nowhere worthwhile to go.
Fintan O’Toole is on leave