Bright lights, big issues for RTÉ

Analysis: Broadcaster bids for balance of past and present in new season of shows

RTÉ’s new season launch: (from L) Ryan Tubridy, Laura Whitmore, Bernard O’Shea, Ray D’Arcy, Jennifer Zamparelli, Amy Huberman, Brendan O’Connor, Doireann Garrihy, Tommy Tiernan, Kathryn Thomas, Brian Redmond, Loraine Barry, Joanne Cantwell and Nicky Byrne. Photograph: Collins

RTÉ’s new season launch: (from L) Ryan Tubridy, Laura Whitmore, Bernard O’Shea, Ray D’Arcy, Jennifer Zamparelli, Amy Huberman, Brendan O’Connor, Doireann Garrihy, Tommy Tiernan, Kathryn Thomas, Brian Redmond, Loraine Barry, Joanne Cantwell and Nicky Byrne. Photograph: Collins

 

“You need sunglasses coming in here,” said one of the invitees to RTÉ’s new season launch. It wasn’t the celebrity star wattage that did it, not this time, but the brilliant white backdrops in a Studio 4 decked out with giant LCD screens, semi-circular benches and purple couches - a 1960s look, but not an Ireland-in-the-1960s look.

“Who would have thought the Late Late studio could look so good?”proclaimed RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes to some laughter.

Forbes, introduced by event host Jennifer Zamparelli moments earlier as “the ultimate girl boss”, struck a tone balanced between talking up the “uniquely Irish” programming destined for RTÉ screens and hinting at the “tough times” that the broadcasting industry “that we know and love” has been going through.

Next week, RTÉ’s schedules will be dominated by somewhat traditional images of Ireland, with the two-night summer fixture that is the Rose of Tralee contest followed by rolling coverage of the papal visit.

But once the key autumn-winter season begins in earnest, there are signs that it will make good on its promise to portray and examine life in contemporary Ireland, from the depiction of direct provision in the crime drama Taken Down (still in production) to the challenge of overcoming grief and keeping healthy in the documentary Sea Swimming.

Ageing, fertility, anxiety, drug addiction and the housing crisis all get a serious look in on a schedule that also marks the centenary of the 1918 general election and the War of Independence.

London ‘Late Late’

Brexit, meanwhile, is top of mind for The Late Late Show, which will make a rare foray out of the RTÉ studio, flying to London in October to explore the lives of the Irish in Britain. “We feel that our relationship should be Brexit-proof in a social and cultural way,” said presenter Ryan Tubridy.

For Amy Huberman, who wrote and will star in the comedy Finding Joy, it was important that the central character - Joy - comes across as a real person trying to figure stuff out in her life. “We didn’t want her to have an aspirational lifestyle.”

Tried-and-tested presenters such as Brendan O’Connor, Marty Morrissey, Bernard O’Shea, Vogue Williams, Dr Eva Orsmond and Dermot Bannon all have new shows, while there is a return for some simple-but-clever formats such as The Tommy Tiernan Show, in which the comedian is not told who his guest will be before they walk on, and First Dates, the Irish version of the dating programme that milks the triumph of hope over experience with a dash of voyeurism thrown in.

The latter is one of the few shows in recent years that have managed to cut through to that hard-to-reach younger audience that can barely remember a time before Netflix.

Puppet brothers

Some of the target viewership for gleefully inappropriate puppet brothers Podge and Rodge may also be too young remember the last time the scabrous pair were on RTÉ2, but they’re back, with new co-host Doireann Garrihy, one of the fresher faces on this season’s schedule.

“If you want any advice on working with oul fellas, I’ve loads of experience,” presenter and comedy actor Zamparelli joked to Garrihy.

Elsewhere, the schedule is noticeably enhanced by programmes that, while they may have an Irish theme or be set and/or filmed in Ireland, were commissioned by the BBC. For RTÉ, this is a reflection of both its financial limitations and just the way the television industry works now.

The broadcaster is promoting its new season at a time when local rival Virgin Media Television has embarked upon a big publicity campaign to highlight the rebranding of TV3 Group from the end of the month.

RTÉ’s content budget, roughly the same this season as it was last year, remains substantially higher than Virgin’s, reflecting its statutory remit to act as a public service broadcaster. But audience expectations will be higher too.

And in the age of “peak TV”, both RTÉ and Virgin must compete for the attention of viewers with just about everything and everybody.