Rock me mama, there’s music on TV

RTÉ has shares in Nathan Carter, but music television everywhere is staging a comeback

"Find someone who loves you as much as RTÉ loves Nathan Carter. "

That's one of the politer social media reactions to our national broadcaster's Friday night summer repeats of The Nathan Carter Show. The country music "sensation" has had his fair share of screen time – more than his fair share, say those reaching for eyeroll emojis.

Some good/bad news: new episodes of The Nathan Carter Show – light, music-themed chat interspersed with performances from Sligo's Knocknarea Arena – have been commissioned. In fact, they've already been filmed.

It shouldn’t be surprising: Carter really is very popular, particularly among a demographic some RTÉ executives like to call “the heartlands”. Translated, this means the segment of television households, mostly outside Dublin, who are Saorview-dependent and watch proportionately more RTÉ than viewers with a wider menu of entertainment options.


The people who buy tickets to be in Carter’s live audience look and sound like they’re enjoying themselves, which frankly isn’t always the case with live TV audiences in Ireland.

But why is he suddenly ubiquitous? The answer lies in the fact that, for a long time country music and its fans were ignored by “Dublin media” and felt it too.

Viewer ratings

Finally, in 2015, the Late Late Show donned its stetsons for a country music special that included Carter. It was a tremendous success. Viewer ratings surged above 700,000 and the rest is toe-tapping history: the country music special is now part of the Late Late Show calendar and Carter earned his television spurs, picking up a Christmas special along the way.

His is not the only music-led show on RTÉ, but music television is still rare enough on any channel in 2017 to be remarkable.

Over the past decade, the industry mutterings have been that music television, relatively expensive to produce, is just too difficult to get right and that radio, through social media offcuts, is becoming an increasingly visual medium anyway.

Music television can be polarising. Some of the most loved acts are also the most hated. A small handful are over-exposed, while many more are drowned out in a chorus of “who?”. When music television output amounts to little more than end-credit fillers or warm-up acts for the release of lottery balls, it’s hard for the audience at home to get into any kind of rhythm.

In the UK, the rule in recent years seems to have been that only Jools Holland is allowed to make it. Everything else has been strictly treated as a one-off.

Not any more: this autumn, the BBC One will launch a six-part live music programme, which, discounting talent contests, will be its first regular peak-time music show since the cancellation of Top of the Pops in 2006.

The new, unnamed show will be made by Fulwell 73, a production company connected to James Corden and Ben Winston, the executive producer of Corden's US chat show, and it will feature sketches as well as live performances from bona fide stars. Who knows it might even help create a few?

Separately, the BBC is organising a weekend of festivals next June as a "replacement" for its coverage of Glastonbury, which is having a "fallow" year so its fields can heal.

Pesky earworms

Together these announcements bode well for some fresh comings-together on Twitter for withering dismissals of musicians whose careers are deemed mysterious at best.

Since 2006, two trends have dug into the media market like pesky earworms: on-demand viewing and social media. The former has dented the communal, watercooler status of some television programmes, but others now possess an enhanced “event television” status sealed by the glue of social media.

People just feel less alone in the world when they can sit down to a live televised concert and all make the same joke about Gary Barlow.

One music event that hopefully will be a one-off, for obvious reasons, was the One Love Manchester concert, headlined by Ariana Grande, which in June became the most-watched programme on UK television to date in 2017 with an average of 10.9 million viewers.

Almost half the people who were watching television at the time were tuned in, while the concert was also broadcast in more than 50 countries under deals with BBC Worldwide.

This was a special case of catharsis, and of music intersecting with the news headlines in horrific circumstances in the wake of the Manchester Arena bomb.

But, assisted by Grande's note-perfect performance and some best-in-class broadcasting by the BBC, One Love Manchester demonstrated just how powerful music on television can be. Audiences who may not be the biggest consumers of music will tune in just to see pop stars, old and current, take to the stage. And it didn't happen on YouTube.

In today’s media market din, traditional broadcasters must wave their arms about to attract attention. Wouldn’t it be nice if they increasingly turned to music to make themselves heard above the noise?