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True crime, eyeliner and Covid complications: RTÉ factual chief on its new season

Documentaries have evolved as audience tastes shift, says Seán Mac Giolla Phádraig

From murder and imprisonment to competitive make-up artistry and Irish wedding speeches, few subject limits apply to the pitches that land on the desk of Seán Mac Giolla Phádraig, group head of factual at RTÉ.

Documentary highlights in RTÉ's new season line-up include The Irish Wedding from director Alex Fegan, testimony of life in the Magdalene laundries in Ireland's Dirty Laundry, Ken Wardrop's pandemic-themed Cocooned and Keelin Shanley: Faraway, Still Close, co-directed by the late broadcaster's husband Conor Ferguson.

Reflecting “one of the big trends, inspired by the likes of Netflix”, true crime will grace the schedules through the two-part The Killing of Fr Niall Molloy and the three-part series Crimes and Confessions, which delves into the operations of the Garda murder squad in the 1970s and 1980s.

We definitely need a greater diversity of voices when it comes to producing and directing

“Audience tastes have evolved and our output is evolving to match it,” says Mac Giolla Phádraig. This means more series both on television and radio (through Radio 1’s Doc on One).


“Audiences are more willing now to come back for a second and third part,” he says, noting how recent television two-parters The Boys in Green and The Hunger: The Story of the Irish Famine bucked the tradition of ratings dipping after the first episode.

Meanwhile, RTÉ’s one-off documentaries “have become a lot more feature-y” in length and style.

“If you told me five years ago that on the first Monday in January, we would be playing something that is 70 minutes long and mostly in black and white with a single interviewee, which we did with Marian this year, and it would get a 40 per cent share [of the available audience], I’d have thought you were nuts.”

Pandemic gains

Lockdowns boosted RTÉ viewership in 2020 and its challenge now is to retain as much of those gains – especially among the elusive 15-34 audience – as it can.

“We’re gauging ourselves against 2019 figures so far this year because we know there’s a bit of a bubble there in 2020 because of Covid,” Mac Giolla Phádraig says.

But the 15-34s will “turn up for a quality Irish story”, he believes. Doc on One’s serial killer podcast The Nobody Zone, for instance, reached a far younger audience than the Radio 1 average.

Intense international competition – from BBC and Channel 4 to HBO and Netflix – mean his job as a commissioning editor "is just to make sure that our stuff is of similar quality to what's out there", he says.

“If anything, the disrupters that have come into the market have made us up our game a little bit.”

Mac Giolla Phádraig’s own definition of public service broadcasting has expanded. Before his current affairs background taught him that “if we were chasing a Minister down the street, we were doing something of value”. Now he is also conscious that RTÉ needs to do “the entertaining part” of the old Reithian mantra “inform, educate and entertain”.

His factual brief takes in property programmes – "we probably have enough at the moment" – and other lifestyle shows such as RTÉ2's forthcoming Glow Up Ireland, a localised version of the BBC format from producers Indiepics. Mac Giolla Phádraig has "high hopes" for the Maura Higgins-fronted show, which has just wrapped. On-set safety concerns were high throughout filming, as the format necessitated close contact.

“Making an hour of television is an incredibly complicated endeavour to begin with and when you have the complication of a pandemic on top, it becomes infinitely more so,” he says, stressing his admiration for both RTÉ’s internal producers and the independent production companies enduring “very difficult” working conditions.

Original IP

Across its factual slate, RTÉ might green-light “four or five” international formats a year, and the rest will be original Irish IP, he says.

“Obviously, the ultimate objective would be to become a growhouse for original formats we can export, but realistically, in order to grow them, we need recognisable brands to grow them off.”

As well as seeking fresh Irish formats, he is on the hunt for “the next Ken Wardrops and Alex Fegans” – new documentary directors.

“We definitely need a greater diversity of voices when it comes to producing and directing. No more than any other market, the television industry has been fairly stagnant. There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity for younger people.”

For authored documentaries, authenticity is vital: “I can guess what it’s like to be a 25 year-old in this country, but I wouldn’t expect to make an authentic documentary about it.”

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics