Painting the Late Late by numbers

 

A year ago it appeared to have been invigorated by a new host. Now RTÉ’s flagship show has slipped again into predictable mediocrity. But when it comes to chatshows, cash trumps quality, argues Shane Hegarty

HERE’S A GAME you can play at home: make your own Late Late Show. You don’t have to have the guests, although there are weeks when you could probably rustle some of them up easily enough. No, you have only to guess at their categories. Because two months into its 48th season, it is clear that the Late Lateingredients are as unchanging as the Big Mac recipe.

Last week’s show epitomised this. It was a Late Late Showby numbers: a comedian who’s been on too many times before (Katherine Lynch); an Irish television presenter flogging a show (also Katherine Lynch, as it happens, though Hector Ó h’Eochagáin was also there); a C-grade British celebrity (Carol Vorderman); and Chris de Burgh (how brightly he shines in the starry firmament is a subjective matter, not least to himself).

There was also an interview with Liam Hayes, the former Meath footballer recently diagnosed with cancer. It was a moving interview but it also fitted in with the Late Late Show’s unsavoury obsession with, and prurience about, other people’s grief. There would be more sincerity about the chatshow’s attitude if it didn’t indulge an apparent need to have a Disease of the Week.

So here we are, almost 50 years into the show’s history – but, more pertinently, into the second year of Ryan Tubridy’s residency. It looked as if a new host would invigorate the format but it has once again settled into a dull pattern of bland followed by insipid followed by something interesting followed by cringe followed by Oliver Callan. The same guests. The same rhythm. The same show. Week after week. For two hours. For another year.

Then Saturday night comes, and there’s another chatshow, presented in this case by Brendan O’Connor, spread over an hour and 20 minutes, but with guests of even lower stature. With respect to Paddy O’Gorman and Mary O’Rourke, where do they fit in with the “smart, sassy entertainment” trumpeted by Steve Carson, RTÉ’s director of programmes, TV? How is that line-up “fun and fresh”? It did have a punt at that this week, but the excruciating in-character Hardy Bucks appearance on last week’s show left viewers’ toes painfully curled for the rest of the weekend.

A couple of years ago it looked as if it wouldn’t be like this. There was a new host of the Late Lateon the way and Tubridy’s move meant that Saturday nights could be freed up for something else. It has long been clear that there are not enough guests for three and a half hours of RTÉ chatshows over two nights. But the schedule remained the same. It did so because cash trumps quality. All, of course, is based on the ratings. The Late Late Showstill manages an average of over 650,000 viewers a week (with peaks and slumps depending on the guest), but it’s arguable that, in a narrow Irish TV landscape, the show is the beneficiary of a national habit, a compulsion built up over much of the population’s lifespans, to find out what’s next, even though we know most of the time now. While its eclectic nature is intrinsic to its identity, its predictability currently outweighs that characteristic significantly.

Its bulk, though, now has everything to with its market value. The Late Late Showhas a lucrative sponsorship and the expensive advertising slots. Both are precious at a time of declining revenue. RTÉ had originally sought a reported €1.2 million for annual sponsorship; instead Quinn Insurance agreed a two-year deal for an undisclosed sum.

For its money, Quinn gets an average of eight “stings” per show, a presence on all trailers, a spot in the RTÉ Guide, ads on RTÉ Player, personal appearances by Tubridy at sponsors’ events, free tickets to the show and the chance to hobnob with guests in the Green Room.

It also earns the chance to see Matt Cooper tear into Seán Quinn’s reputation during an April show, just before an ad break that begins with the sting for Quinn Insurance – but them’s the breaks.

The Saturday Night Showhas no such sponsor but it has an identity that attracts advertisers and viewers more easily than a movie, which is often cited as the only other Saturday-night option. The show also, importantly, has viewers – 300,000 of them. While this is nothing compared with the viewers pulled in by TV3 on Saturday nights at the moment (around half a million), it is significant. At €90,000 an episode, it is felt that this is the best value the station can get right now.

Meanwhile, what’s happening on TV3? It has simply backed off on Friday nights, having learned the hard way that to go up against the Late Late– with The Dunphy Show– was foolhardy on two counts. First, Irish viewers are creatures of habit; and second, the guests aren’t there, or if they are the Late Latewill go to war to get them.

Instead, TV3 has benefited from ITV’s success with The X Factor, and its Irish contestants, by piping in hours of the show and its spin-offs across the Saturday and Sunday schedules. The channel is clobbering RTÉ in those time slots.

As for the rest of the week, TV3 can’t bring itself to shut up. It has cornered the market in early-day babble. There is chat all morning ( Ireland AM, The Morning Show, Midday) before it gives up and leaves the dead afternoon to tired imports such as Judge Judyand The Jeremy Kyle Show.

However, RTÉ then quickly picks up the baton with chatfests Four Liveand The Daily Show. These sometimes feature guests already seen on the Late Lateor elsewhere, resulting in a steady murmur of familiar voices.

Such daytime offerings may be mainly lifestyle shows but they are also variations on the chatshow. In a small country there just aren’t enough voices to make for an interesting chorus of people across what adds up to 35 hours of chat (one couldn’t even count the radio hours) on Irish television each week.

Yet those at the top of the pile struggle to find quality. It seems clear that The Late Late Showwill simply limp through the year, relying on the odd high note or talking point to obscure the filler that makes up most of its slots these days.

It may make financial sense for the Late Lateto lumber on across Friday night’s schedules, and its viewing figures are still high enough to confirm it as a national institution and bandage over its problems. Yet there can be no doubt now that it is once again the Lame Lame Show. Its new host was young and strong enough to add vigour, but its format has proven unable to adapt.

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