RTÉ Prime Time bids to hold on to 100,000 new viewers with revamp

Editor Richard Downes hopes refreshed show can keep Covid audience ‘dividend’

New Prime Time line-up: Sarah McInerney, Miriam O’Callaghan and Fran McNulty. Photograph: RTÉ.

New Prime Time line-up: Sarah McInerney, Miriam O’Callaghan and Fran McNulty. Photograph: RTÉ.

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Prime Time returns to RTÉ One on Tuesday evening with two new presenters, a new-look set and a promise from editor Richard Downes to prioritise “serious and in-depth journalism” over “Tweedledum-Tweedledee” face-offs between politicians.

“The answers aren’t always to be found in Leinster House,” said Mr Downes ahead of the revamp. Head-to-heads between Government and Opposition representatives will still happen, but “not in every programme”, he stressed.

“It dispirits me because so much of it is about scoring points. I think the audience sees that, and it’s a turn-off for them.”

Mr Downes, a former RTÉ Washington correspondent who has been a Prime Time reporter since 2014 and appointed editor in January, has been tasked with holding on to the extra viewers the broadcaster’s current affairs flagship show has accrued throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

Some 380,000 people watched last Tuesday’s edition, which included a Miriam O’Callaghan interview with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, and a further 20,000 tuned in on RTÉ +1.

“They’re unusual numbers, I have to say,” Mr Downes said. “But we have seen it all through the pandemic. People want expertise, they want facts and they want serious analysis. They want the deep dive.”

In 2019, the average viewership for Prime Time was 267,000 and it had an audience share of about 20 per cent. In 2020, that increased to 362,000 and a 28 per cent share. There is little sign of fatigue to date. From the start of 2021 to mid-March, the audience averaged at 341,000.

“It’s a dividend of 100,000,” Mr Downes said. “And it is one of the reasons why we’re trying to refresh, or reboot, because we know that dividend isn’t going to last forever.”

Upgraded studio

RTÉ has switched Prime Time to the station’s new “super high-tech” Studio 5, which was recently upgraded with money from the broadcaster’s Montrose land sale. “Studio 5 in the past would have been pretty pokey but they have ripped it out and started again,” said Mr Downes. While the two-topic format will remain intact for most editions, access to new technology will allow the show to feel “a bit clippier”.

The new presenters will also help broaden the show’s appeal, RTÉ expects. Sarah McInerney, who will present alongside Ms O’Callaghan on Tuesday nights, has “got that dog with a bone thing, she won’t let people get away with things”, Mr Downes said, while Fran McNulty, who will co-present on Thursdays and also appear as a reporter, has a “straight to the point” style that comes with the “deep knowledge” of a correspondent.

More “guest editors”, following Prof Luke O’Neill’s stint, are on the cards, while Mr Downes also admitted to being a fan of the musical outro.

“I think there is a sense that Covid is unrelenting and grim and there’s room for a little bit of relief. But we won’t be doing cat videos. Not unless the cat attacks someone important.”