Morning Edition shows potential

Mon, Jan 28, 2013, 00:00

After some last-minute tweaks to the studio backdrop's blue-orange mélange, Morning Edition has broken onto RTÉ screens and already its potential is as clear as daylight - potential to increase daytime viewing habits in Ireland, potential to begin a tradition for regular rolling television news and potential to make a star of main presenter Keelin Shanley.

"You're very welcome to our very first programme," she says at 9am, before introducing a timeline of what the next two hours of the RTÉ One / RTÉ News Now weekday show will look like.

It's the epitome of how its editor, Anthony Murnane, describes its target tone: "light and shade".

The big news story of the morning is a grim one - the killing of Det Garda Adrian Donohoe in Co Louth on Friday night.

Also coming up, Shanley tells viewers, is the first part of her pre-recorded interview with Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a segment on job-hunting and a chat with Joe O'Shea about The Gambling Gene, his RTÉ Two documentary (cross-promotion being something of a daytime TV staple).

A conversation with Alan Duffy, a friend of Det Garda Donohoe, via a live link to Dundalk, and a clip of Diarmuid Breathnach playing tribute to his friend, the wildlife broadcaster Éamon de Buitléar who died yesterday, are the type of interviews that would be squeezed to mere seconds on a half-hour news bulletin, but here can be played out.

Irish audiences might be more familiar with such personal, even intimate, material as "good radio", but it also makes for compelling television.

The sports and business segments work well, too, but on today's evidence it is the daily newspaper review, smoothly anchored by Shanley, that is a particular strong point. An easy-to-do item that fits perfectly with the show's "intelligent but accessible" editorial style, this morning it was the turn of political correspondents, the Irish Daily Star's Catherine Halloran and my colleague Mary Minihan, to take us through coverage of the garda killing, the European Central Bank telling the Government "not so fast", the incredible survival skills of James Reilly and (in an "and finally" touch) the tragic end of Jedward's recording contract.

If this was Sky News, the fact that all three people on screen talking current affairs were women would be unremarkable, but this is not Sky News, it's RTÉ, which puts out all-male panels so often it means this paper review line-up is still, sadly, remarkable.

Of course, live telly wouldn't be live telly without the odd glitch, and the show soon suffers its first technical hitch, as a report by Ciarán Mullooly about a charity song "that's designed to lift the country's spirits" freezes up within seconds - the nation's morale, it seems, is not for improving.

Being relaxed about mistakes is a tricky but vital on-air skill, but Shanley pulls it off, moving swiftly along to the Bill Gates interview.

I must admit my heart sank slightly last week when RTÉ announced the debut Morning Edition would feature Gates - a big name who happens to be in town isn't the same thing as a scintillating interviewee (witness Graham Norton's recent perfunctory exchange with Tom Cruise).

Even during the Windows hey day, Gates was a champion eye-glazer. There's a good question about levels of Irish overseas aid in austere times, and Gates's work to eradicate polio is undoubtedly admirable, but still - this is television: give me an unreconstructed villain over a sincere philanthropist any morning.

As far as the format goes, though, it quite simply works. My one reservation is the formal reading of the news headlines. Having opted to shun the traditional husband-and-wife dual presenter system (perhaps partly for financial reasons), the logical next step was to delegate as much as possible so that Shanley isn't overburdened.

But in an era where broadcasters like the BBC prefer to speak in terms of "presenters" and not "newsreaders", RTÉ's preference across much of its schedule for a very deliberate enunciation of the headlines seems old-fashioned, and here it interrupts the easygoing, friendly tone cultivated by Shanley.

Highly respected within RTÉ for her versatility, Shanley is already well-known for her work on Prime Time and The Consumer Show. But even if it takes time for audiences to flow rather than trickle to Morning Edition, broadcasting on TV for two hours, five days a week, will inevitably bring her, and the team of on-screen regulars, more exposure.

More people watch television in the morning than you might think. It's an audience of powerful consumers too, including as it does the homemakers who make their families' purchasing decisions. This is the primary customer base of advertisers such as Avonmore, L'Oréal, Müller, Cadbury and Tesco - brands that all appeared in today's ad breaks.

The final hour of TV3's Ireland AM is now in the line of Morning Editon's fire. Murnane, speaking to me on Friday, said he hoped to lure the other side's audience to his show.

For my money, there's also a decent chance that the RTÉ programme will attract new-to-daytime viewers - in other words, people who shun the (effective) mix of commercial patter and sofa therapy on TV3, the disaffected radio listeners who learn that it's possible to have the TV on in the background too, and even news junkies (who may come away craving harder stuff).

Flicking between the various options is, well, an option.

Morning Edition is the child of two RTÉ parents - the first, RTÉ Television, needed content to up its game in daytime (the afternoon offer Today, launched late last year, is more of a cut-price sticking plaster), and so it looked to RTÉ News and Current Affairs to provide.

This multimedia network of journalistic resources will be Morning Edition's trump card on the big news days, as it learns to become more and more reactive.

The big question about this welcome addition to the RTÉ schedule is this: why didn't it do it years ago?

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