After 14 years, he’s off. Ryan Tubridy has decided to abdicate from his Late Late Show throne at the end of the current season in May, and who can blame him? Live television of this kind is an exhausting business and the RTÉ flagship chatshow is more demanding than most.
Having put in a reign that was both admirable and flawed – sometimes within the same segment – Tubridy must have felt a law of diminishing returns would apply if he kept going in this historic hot seat (which these days is a mossy green cloth).
The world of television was a different place when Tubridy succeeded Pat Kenny to become only the third long-term host of The Late Late Show in 2009.
Despite Kenny’s valiant, steady efforts over the previous decade, the programme was still most associated with the broadcaster who made it what it was: Gay Byrne. Tubridy, who had been hosting a Saturday night chatshow, was deemed by Montrose bosses to have the requisite range and personality to handle the Late Late.
Then in his mid-30s, his appointment also marked a generational change, though with the presenter proud of his “young fogey” credentials, this was less apparent on screen than it might have been. Executives hinted at a shake-up in the format but little changed.
On his first show the guests were actors Saoirse Ronan and Joan Collins, singers Sharon Corr and David Gray, footballer Niall Quinn and Cherie Blair, with the line-up completed by then taoiseach Brian Cowen. The debut secured average ratings of 927,000 – the highest in a decade – and a whopping 62 per cent share of the audience watching television at the time.
While his interviews with adults could sometimes become stilted, that was never the case with children, with whom he was always funny, natural and free of condescension
Tubridy’s sophomore season of 2010-2011 was buoyed by recession, which prompted a rise in television viewership, but thereafter the ratings began a slow, inexorable decline, with few reversals in the trend. This was almost certainly less his fault than it was a mirror of what was happening to viewing patterns across television more widely.
The Late Late Show’s audience shrank 8 per cent between 2008 – the year before Tubridy took over – and 2022, close to the 7 per cent decline in RTÉ’s overall adult viewership over this time, according to marketing group Core.
The show entered an awkward phase, becoming a Twitter “hate-watch”, with social media users making gags about guests plucked straight from the RTÉ canteen and highlighting every perceived slip-up or error in judgment. Tubridy could be witty and incisive, the perfect host. But he could also induce cringes that made viewers long for the relief of an ad break.
Even at the time, however, producers knew that it was better to be talked about, than not talked about. The ratings of this period look enviably healthy from a 2023 lens. Part of the problem is that average viewership is just that – average. If the audience goes to bed en masse halfway through, the tail end of the Late Late’s lengthy running time drags down the ratings performance of what is usually a much-watched first half-hour.
The show changed executive producers more than once during Tubridy’s stint but some television insiders maintained throughout that – notwithstanding the broader industry backdrop and the difficulties posed by the show’s eclectic, unwieldy format – it was the host who needed replacing.
To Core, the figures indicate that Tubridy was an asset to the show: a 30 per cent drop in its 25-44 year-old viewership between 2008 and 2022 is actually better than the 45 per cent plummet in RTÉ’s wider television viewership among this group, meaning Tubridy has “outperformed” with younger viewers.
Two factors ultimately extended his run and put him in a position to choose his own destiny and quit on his own terms. Both were mentioned in the statement released by RTÉ announcing his departure. First, while his interviews with adults could sometimes become stilted – triggering the suspicion that the host was phoning it in – that was never the case with children, with whom he was always funny, natural and free of condescension.
Tubridy is, by some distance, the best host to date of The Late Late Toy Show, turning what was a popular toy-fest into an annual celebration, a true Christmas institution. Nothing on Irish television comes close to it in terms of viewership. In 2020 and 2021 the average audience exceeded 1.7 million on the night. In 2022 it softened a little but still left everything else for dust.
The second fillip came in virus form: during the pandemic, audiences were looking for solace, reassurance and hard information as the world around them became abruptly unsettling. RTÉ and The Late Late Show stepped up. Although Tubridy was himself benched by Covid on one of the key nights of the crisis in March 2020, for much of the rest of the year he overcame video-link interviewing hurdles and the absence of a studio audience to deliver a strong Covid-era show.
But by 2021 there was a sense that viewers were wearying of his pandemic pulpit. It was time to ease up on the “national parlour” side of the show and return to more standard celebrity plug-fest fare – entertainment. It has done this while being endlessly compared to chatshows on the BBC (The Graham Norton Show) and elsewhere on RTÉ (The Tommy Tiernan Show) that are not broadcast live and benefit from being edited into a snappier product.
Hot seat contenders
So who will inherit The Late Late Show now and what, exactly, will they be inheriting?
Internal names in the frame are led by Claire Byrne and Miriam O’Callaghan.
Ladbrokes has already installed O’Callaghan as favourite. Her name was linked to the job last time around and she stood in for Tubridy when he had Covid, broadcasting to 876,000 people in what was the most-watched edition of The Late Late Show, excluding the toy show, that year. (In 2022, the most-watched edition garnered an audience of 567,000.)
But Byrne is extremely well-liked by executives at RTÉ and recently departed her Monday night current affairs programme Claire Byrne Live, hinting that she would like to do more television in the future. Her mid-morning Radio 1 show confirms she has the ability to preside over the typical light-and-shade running order of The Late Late Show.
Sarah McInerney, meanwhile, is a rising star within RTÉ and shouldn’t be ruled out from the gig.
The most likely man – note, man – to be appointed is surely Brendan O’Connor. He is a veteran of the Saturday night chatshow circuit and has done well with his weekend Radio 1 show over the past three years. His Late Late Show would be less predictable, perhaps, but who needs predictability on live television?
The other possibility is that RTÉ might plump for an outsider, persuading someone of the calibre of comedian and presenter Dara Ó Briain to take it on. If it does go down a more left-field path, it may signal a desire to tear up a format that can be said to have veered from flexible and novel to constricting and stale.
The Late Late Show’s St Patrick’s Day special on Friday night is on air from 9.35pm-11.30pm, similar to last week’s runtime. This is an extraordinary amount of live television, even considering RTÉ’s trumpeting of the show as a bedrock of its public service broadcasting commitments.
Now in its seventh decade, The Late Late Show competes not just with other television channels but with streaming services, social media apps and sleep, and needs to be reinvigorated sooner rather than later to retain what is left of its relevance. It is to Tubridy’s credit that he realised this should happen without him.
The presenter tends to end his shows with advice to “mind yourself and each other”. Now is the right time for him to mind himself and leave the Late Late Show to others. Let them find out how hard it is.