Things started badly for The Tonight Show on the all-important Twitter machine. TV3's replacement for Tonight With Vincent Browne faced an uphill battle against hardcore users of the old #vinb hashtag. For days beforehand, these irreconcilables had been raging against the dying of the light, with some suggesting the new hashtag should be #BlueShirtShow, in reference to co-presenter Ivan Yates's Fine Gael roots.
Worse was to come on Tuesday when TV3 started pushing #tonightshow as the actual replacement. Thirty seconds of research would have told them that's the tag used for Jimmy Fallon's hugely popular US talkshow. It was a rookie mistake, and hardly inspired confidence in claims that the new programme would be more savvy and modern than its predecessor.
But speed bumps are inevitable in a launch of this sort. And TV3 deserves some praise for making a serious attempt to reinvigorate its late night current affairs slot. To be honest, it’s a few years now since Browne’s show was at its best. In its heyday, it was very different from anything else on Irish television at the time, partly because of its cheap-as-chips-production values but mostly due to its sense that a row might break out at any moment. It felt like guerrilla TV and it spoke effectively to the anti-establishment mood.
As the years went on, the trick wore increasingly thin. Browne’s ill-health meant he had to take time off, and none of his replacements grabbed the baton with sufficient vigour. Energy levels dropped and so did the ratings, although you’d still have to admire the chutzpah which led to memorable moments like the live broadcast from the George pub on the day of the marriage referendum result.
The audience that did stay faithful was a mix of political anoraks and left-wing believers who – rightly – saw Browne as the only national broadcaster overtly sympathetic to their views. So what will they have made of this slicker, shinier new vehicle, co-piloted by two of the country’s most high-profile radio presenters?
Ivan Yates and Matt Cooper are both experienced and competent broadcasters with established national profiles (full disclosure: I stand in occasionally for Cooper on his radio show). TV3's decision to pair them was intriguing – the advance publicity suggested that Cooper, as the professional journalist, would deal with the more inquisitorial, reality-based end of things while Yates would do the opinions.
As it turned out, this was sort of but not quite what we got after the Dr Who-style Muse tune rather oddly chosen as the signature tune
First we had an initial scamper through a few stories of the day. “Here we go. Are you going to be tiresome about Trump every night?” Yates asked as Cooper kicked off with Donald Trump’s bloodcurdling UN speech. Then on to whether Michael D would get a second presidential term and Michael O’Leary’s mea culpa over Ryanair’s cancellations fiasco. The approach was reminiscent of the two-hander format of Yates’s old morning radio show with Chris O’Donoghue on Newstalk. If it all seemed a bit forced, maybe that was down to first night nerves. But the two-hander format is trickier to pull off on TV than on radio, and the visual medium makes the absence of a woman more glaringly apparent.
Things got rather better – and not just on the gender front - with a panel of Fine Gael's Regina Doherty, Fianna Fail's Lisa Chambers, comedian/broadcaster Al Porter and needs-no-introduction Eamon Dunphy for a discussion about social housing policy which wouldn't have been out of place on the old Browne show (although neither Dunphy nor Porter would have been there).
If you haven’t been hiding under a rock for the last several months, you will have heard the same points rehearsed umpteen times before, but perhaps the familiarity of both argument and format contributed to the sense that everyone was now settling in and getting a bit more comfortable. As promised beforehand, Cooper took the lead on the questions, with Yates confining himself to the occasional aside. But when the discussion turned to the broader economic picture, he stepped in a bit more, seemingly intent on marking his centre-right turf. Nothing wrong with that, but will it inevitably force Cooper to stand on the centre-left ground and, if so, is he comfortable with that?
The show wrapped up with journalists Gavan Reilly and Ellen Coyne looking at social media reaction, along with a specially pre-cooked story from Reilly on a poll of TDs' attitudes on a range of issues. This not a huge departure from the format of the old show, including a preview of the morning's papers.
Will the new show work? Not surprisingly, hardcore e #vinb fans were not impressed, but overall social media reaction turned for the better after that stilted opening sequence between the two presenters. Despite suggestions in the pre-publicity that it would be much slicker and more modern, the new show is just as desk-bound as its predecessor, although the set is slightly easier on the eye. They’ll never be Ant and Dec but The Tonight Show will ultimately stand or fall on how quickly and how successfully the two presenters can move on from scripted bonhomie or pre-planned disagreements to build a more comfortable and natural dynamic.