Pantigate, ‘Prime Time’, Eurosong: is RTÉ stuck in a loop?

Every week the broadcaster gives viewers something to talk about

By the skin of his teeth: Late Late Show host Ryan Tubridy with Eurosong hopeful Laura O’Neill and her mentor, Billy McGuinness of Aslan. Photograph: Collins

By the skin of his teeth: Late Late Show host Ryan Tubridy with Eurosong hopeful Laura O’Neill and her mentor, Billy McGuinness of Aslan. Photograph: Collins

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 01:00

We know RTÉ has a press department whose job it is to send out good news, teasers, promises of greatness to come, but right now it must feel as if the broadcasting landscape is one of ever-igniting fires. Big ones. Little ones. Raging ones. Bursting into flames who knows where next.

The recent weeks alone have brought us Pantigate and Pussy Riot on the Saturday Night Show ; Amber ’s promise disappearing in the final shot; Eurosong on the Late Late Show ; and Prime Times ’s “Irish Ukrainians, not Russians” looping over and over and over again as the watching nation went from bemused to irritated to half-crazed to amused to never wanting it to end.

At times, RTÉ appears to be in a loop of its own. Apology after statement after clean-up after radio appearance after tweeted clarification after screw-up after apology.

Last week’s Late Late Show Eurosong shenanigans would have been nothing more than the annual feed on the Eurovision cheese board, if it hadn’t been for the sub-Jeremy Kyle square off between Linda Martin and Billy from Aslan followed by such empty stretches that they actually played charades, presumably because Ryan Tubridy forgot to bring a deck of cards.

But what tipped it from the “knees-up” to the “screw-up” column was a score board that didn’t go into three figures, so that the two acts sat stunted at 99 points while the independent assessor loudly coughed from the wings.

It foreshadowed the technical glitch on Monday’s Prime Time that went on so long it morphed into a sound installation.

Eurosong and “Irish Ukrainians” became the most talked about things on television in the past week largely because both went on for long enough to alert the social networks. We long ago moved from a world of “Did you see? . . . ” to one of, “Are you watching? . . . ”

But they didn’t become the stand-out TV moments of the week purely because of social networks. Instead, it’s partly because RTÉ appears to be creatively thin at present. Its weakened finances have had an effect, no doubt, but there is something else going on. Or, perhaps, too much not going on.

This is not to say it is moribund. Despite its somewhat flat opening episode, Quirke has reiterated RTÉ’s interest in strong drama. Prime Time ’s Investigations Unit has been more than just a rebranding of Prime Time Investigates , going some way to move on from catastrophic mistakes of the recent past.

At the turn of the year, The Summit and ROG: The Ronan O’Gara Documentary were both superb documentaries.

However, its evening schedules are riddled with afternoon-type lifestyle shows and cookery programmes.

Its prime time schedules remain clogged by three nights of current affairs (twice in that golden post-news hour), one night of weak romantic comedies and two nights of live chat shows which can be separated only through their sets and presenters.

This week, RTÉ One finally had its hands on an original Graham Linehan-scripted sitcom, The Walshes , and put it out at 10.15pm on Thursday, a time which could speak of a nervousness but is presumably a result of that bedblocker Prime Time .

Only Monday and Sunday nights’ post-news schedule offers any surprise, and even now RTÉ has somehow managed to give viewers a Sunday evening choice between a Gabriel Byrne drama on RTÉ One ( Quirke ) and a Gabriel Byrne drama on RTÉ Two ( Vikings ). They might as well chuck in The Usual Suspects on RTÉjr while they’re at it.

With a new controller, RTÉ Two is on a self-acknowledged mission to improve itself this year, much needed to refresh a channel in which home-grown shows are islands among a swelling sea of inconsistent imports.

It too often has the appearance of a channel filled with placeholders waiting for a major sporting event to come along and stretch out across the hours until bedsores kick in.

When the viewer does get ambushed by something delightful, or delightfully awful, it will be talked about. It will be kicked about. But, as Love/Hate proved, it will also be cherished. That intensity is in the nature of the relationship between the public and RTÉ.

However, the controversies, disappointments and unintended comedies haven’t made RTÉ’s unplanned highlights reel simply because they have their own Twitter parody account before credits have even rolled. They have done so because they represent an uncomfortable truth about RTÉ at the moment: there isn’t too much else to talk about.


shegarty@irishtimes.com
@shanehegarty

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