New generation takes charge of remote control

 

Profile/ Noel Curran: The appointment of 37-year-old programme-maker Noel Curran to one of RTÉ's top jobs shows that it is determined to shed its mandarin image. Has the station found the right man, asks Shane Hegarty

If Noel Curran's rise through the ranks of RTÉ seems to have been rather swift, it follows a pattern begun with his first job in journalism. When he took a position as a reporter with Business and Finance magazine in 1989, he did so still unsure of whether he was interested in a career in journalism. Yet, his first article became the magazine's cover story. A story on the merger of drinks companies in the north-east may not have set the nation abuzz, but it showed a journalistic instinct that this week led the 37-year-old to become managing director of television at RTÉ. He is the youngest person to have held such a senior position at the station.

Curran replaces director-general designate Cathal Goan in a position that is seen by some as second in importance only to the top job. He will have responsibility for the station's entire television output and the nation's viewing habits.

Curran is from Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan and although his younger brother, Richard, is also a journalist (he is business editor of the Irish Independent) there was no tradition of journalism in the family. He studied communications at DCU (then NIHE) in the mid-1980s, going on to complete a Masters in economics at Trinity College. He then dropped out of a journalism Masters at DCU in order to take the job at Business and Finance, proving that his début cover story was not a fluke as he quickly became deputy editor.

A call from RTÉ in 1992 brought him to the national broadcaster as a reporter on the now defunct Marketplace, one of three programmes to replace Today Tonight. Unusually for someone completely new to both television journalism and the workings of the station, he insisted from the beginning that he be allowed to produce his own reports.

After 18 months with Marketplace he took RTÉ's producer/director course, and when he graduated six months later he was immediately appointed producer of the Saturday night chat show, Kenny Live. His responsibilities included producing the 1996 National Song Contest and travelling to Norway as producer for the Irish entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest, Eimear Quinn. She won both the contest and her producer's heart. The two married in 1999.

When the Eurovision returned to Dublin the following year, Curran was its producer. He insisted that it move away from the Celtic theme so popular when RTÉ had hosted the event three times previously that decade, although there might be few now who would recall that Boyzone were the interval act.

After developing a health show, Pulse, Curran was appointed current affairs editor in 1997, at a time when RTÉ was under constant criticism for the state of its coverage. It would not be the first time in his career that he would be credited with injecting renewed confidence into a department that had become tired and frustrated. It was here that he developed a reputation as an excellent man manager. However, a bad back forced him to leave RTÉ for six months in 1998, before he returned as executive producer of The Late Late Show as it was handed on from Gay Byrne to Pat Kenny. Working only on the early shows of that season he quickly moved on to produce RTÉ's millennium eve programming. The day's schedule was ambitious. It involved more than 500 staff, six presenters, three Dublin studios, four satellite outside broadcast units and an eye on sunrises around the world from the moment the first day began in the South Pacific. That the celebrations around the country, not least at midnight, proved a damp squib didn't help the programme, but as the bells tolled for a new millennium, 74 per cent of the country was watching.

Following this, Curran left RTÉ for the independent sector. As a producer for Andec Media, he presided over the much-praised documentary, Bad Blood, which followed the trail of infected blood products from the US to Ireland. In an era when RTÉ has increasingly turned to the independent sector it is notable that he is the first managing director of television to have worked in the area.

In 2001, RTÉ persuaded an initially reluctant Curran to return to his old post as current affairs editor and it is the way in which he has turned around the fortunes of the once ailing Prime Time that has cemented his reputation as a dynamic programme-maker and manager. He returned to a department that lacked motivation, ideas and ratings. It was under fire from critics, many of them within the station.

Curran set about hiring young, fresh staff (the Prime Time office has been described as looking "like a post-grad centre") and developing a programme with an impressive investigative instinct. Recent programmes on youth drinking and church abuse have shaped the news agenda. Most importantly, its ratings have risen. Within RTÉ, this success has dampened down a debate on whether Prime Time should be moved in the schedules to accommodate more entertainment programmes.

That Prime Time has become both a ratings and publicity magnet in recent times emphasises Curran's strength as a producer who is a firm believer both in the public service ethic and in making programmes that are widely popular. His skill has been to do so while raising the standard of current affairs on RTÉ rather than abandoning it to infotainment. That may be of great value to him as RTÉ continues to enjoy the privilege of the licence fee while also looking to shape up to competition from British and Irish television.

It is a good week to have got the job. Rather than wilt under the heat of TV3's The Dunphy Show, The Late Late Show has instead blossomed, in terms of audience figures at least. This situation means Curran may have the luxury of beginning his job without having to refer constantly to the prospects of the station's flagship programme.

That he joins Goan as another programme-maker elevated to the top means there will no longer be a perception that RTÉ is run by mandarins. Curran will also inherit a solid mandate to make new programmes, even if they are within the terms of its recent licence fee increase.

However, while the station is committed to more home-grown programming and current affairs, a shortfall in advertising revenue means that it may yet face a deficit this year and Curran may not have a budget as healthy as anticipated. He will be expected to produce the programmes that entice the advertisers and which bring the station back to profitability.

All the viewers care about, of course, is that it results in better programmes on their television screens and from this week Noel Curran becomes the man with the most powerful remote control in the country.