RTÉ 2 has taken a few swerves in direction since Father Ted and Father Dougal first got lost in the lingerie department. Back then, the channel was called Network Two. In its history, it has also been Network 2, N2 and RTÉ Two. But the more things change, the more they stay the same: in December 2014 the most-watched programme on the recently rebranded RTÉ 2 was the Father Ted Christmas special – originally broadcast on Channel 4 in December 1996.
Viewers love repeats. Father Ted is a much-loved classic. Still . . . wasn't there anything else on? The short answer is Yes, and that December is not the most representative of months. The longer, more complex answer is Yes, there is new programming on the channel, but it might not matter in the long run: RTÉ 2 in 2015 is exposed to more than one industry headwind.
Under controller Bill Malone, the channel has been making a concerted effort to cater for the 15- to 34-year-old demographic, notably in the awkwardly subjective genre of comedy (Damo & Ivor, more Republic of Telly, more The Savage Eye), reality (Norah's Traveller Academy, Bressie's Teenage Kicks) and factual (Maia Dunphy's What Women Want, #Trending and others).
Its newest shows include The Notorious (starring ultimate-fighter Conor McGregor), comedy music panel show Hey Ho, Let's Go! and the latest one-off in the Reality Bites documentary strand, Clubland.
The results, as might be expected in any commissioning frenzy, have been mixed. Viewers, if not critics, seem keen on the adventures of Damo & Ivor, which attracted more than 200,000 viewers on its return last September and was the most popular programme with 15-34-year-olds on the day.
The Mario Rosenstock Show also does well for the channel – genuinely well – and the impressionist's Christmas special was its second most-watched programme last month. On the other hand, the less said about 2014 sitcom The Centre and any programme with the word "Totes" in the title, the better.
When it comes to RTÉ 2 content, the opinions of journalists as to their merits do not overly matter, however. There is a distinct whiff of Marmite across the schedule. As long as a sufficient number of 15-34s consume its programmes, then RTÉ 2 can stake its claim for a chunk of Montrose’s cash.
Conveniently, any show that either wouldn't or couldn't be made by commercial broadcasters tends to be labelled "public service television" these days. And yet RTÉ is still subject to the same paradoxical pressure applied to the BBC: even "public service programming", the kind too niche for commercial players to attempt, must be of interest or of value to a critical number of people to justify itself.
Autumn docusoap Connected, for example, was, in Malone's words, "a statement piece" for RTÉ 2. Well-made and unfashionably emotional, it attracted a sea of column inches. So did anyone – or rather, did enough people – watch it?
Lumped with a 10.30pm slot, it attracted just 80,000 viewers in its first week. Highly appreciated and dripping with public service merit it may have been, but it was not a ratings hit in the way that, say, Meet the McDonaghs, the better-scheduled three-parter about a Voice of Ireland runner-up, was a hit.
Running a linear television channel costs money, which is why the penny-pinching BBC has proposed ghettoising the youth-oriented BBC Three in a digital-only home. It seems terribly premature. But it is easy to see the same on-demand thinking being applied to RTÉ 2, eventually.
In the end, however, the channel’s future will depend on the very same thing its commercial present depends upon: sport, sport and more sport.
In every calendar year, the biggest audiences on the channel come for the biggest fixtures in football, rugby and GAA. The "faces" of RTÉ 2 are not Eoghan McDermott, Jennifer Maguire, Darren Kennedy, Angela Scanlon or Maia Dunphy, they are Johnny Giles, Tom McGurk, Des Cahill, George Hook and Eamon Dunphy. When the World Cup was on last June, RTÉ 2's share of adult viewing swelled to 15 per cent. It more typically gets about 6 per cent.
RTÉ 2 could achieve the Holy Grail of producing a sitcom that has everybody in stitches and it would still have a commercially lacklustre 2015 because there is no football World Cup, no European Championship and no Olympics on, and TV3 shelled out for the rights to the Rugby World Cup.
Indeed, the risk of a rights-nabbing outbreak is a far greater threat to the channel than any gradual shift in viewing habits. No matter how wonderful a turnaround RTÉ 2 can muster in home-produced non-sport programming, the oldies remain the goodies, and not just at Christmas time. It’s a little depressing, Ted.