Steering a course between worthy and fluffy can result in car-crash TV

 

WHEN THE credits roll on tonight’s Late Late Show, will the guests include Peter Ustinov, Spike Milligan and Germaine Greer, the “golden age” line-up proposed via Twitter by an exasperated Síle Seoige during last week’s show? It’s unlikely, given two of the three are dead. Death, however, is not as much of a barrier to a Late Lateappearance as you might think.

Tonight’s show will feature some delightful specimens from the Human Body Exhibition, which opens in Dublin next week. “It’s the first intentional dead body we’ve had in the studio,” says Late Lateexecutive producer Michael Kealy, intriguingly.

“Now loads of people have died on the set, metaphorically speaking, but this will be the first time it’s actually been planned,” he jokes. His face straightens: “So we’ll obviously have to strike the appropriate tone for that.”

Last Friday it was the inconsistently tuneful disco tones of an item promoting “jukebox musical” Girls Night that prompted TV presenter Seoige to add her lament to the traditionally tetchy #latelate Twitter feed – a weekly ritual where tweeters give a running commentary on RTE’s flagship show. Seoige’s profile is high enough for this to inspire another round of mischievous tabloid headlines last weekend on the perceived decline of the show.

But was this kicking deserved? Not according to one measure: the viewer ratings collated by AGB Nielsen. They, as RTÉ happily let it be known, rose last Friday. An average of 710,000 people tuned in, up from 649,000 the week before, with a total audience reach of 1.53 million. “Thanks to our loyal Twitter viewers,” tweeted Kealy.

Those loyal Twitter viewers might not see themselves as the Late Late’s biggest fans, but Kealy is firmly of the opinion that the “double screening” phenomenon boosts the appeal of watching live or “linear” television such as the Late Late. “I think they get a kick out of it. I mean, if they hate it that much, why would they watch it?” he ponders.

“I understand why people do it, and I do read the Twitter feed – not always during the programme, but maybe after the show. Some of it can be horrendously offensive, but some of it can be very funny . . . particularly the putdowns.”

But Twitter users only reflect one part of the total demographic that watches the Late Late– thanks to the programme’s unique heritage, this is unusually broad, which makes booking guests something of a challenge for the five researchers who work on the show (out of a total team of 13).

“I have 710,000 customers, not just a couple of hundred on Twitter. But do I take what they say seriously? Yes. Even people who are three-quarters of the way through a bottle of wine, I wouldn’t dismiss them, because they’re the people sitting at home watching. I do think they’re wrong sometimes, though.”

Some of the criticisms levelled against the Ryan Tubridy-era Late Late, such as the complaint that it’s too much of a forum for product-plugging celebrities, do seem unfair in the sense that, even supposing this is a bad thing, it applies to all chat shows. The common assertion that modern-day celebrities have been coached into blandness has the potential to affect every chat show.

“What you get out of a celeb very much depends on how they get on with Ryan,” Kealy admits. There are no run-throughs, but Tubridy always meets the guests beforehand, “particularly if we think someone is going to be a bit tricky”.

Certainly, the Late Late’s double role as “national parlour” and entertainment show brings out the mercurial Tubridy’s tendency to veer from overly keen “tough” interviewer to a disengaged purveyor of awkwardness. Guests are thrown curveballs that can result in great car-crash television, or not-so-great cringe television. On last week’s show, model turned businesswoman Andrea Roche was on the verge of an interesting point about how Irish modelling is less inclined to the size zero phenomenon found on international catwalks. “Would Irish models be a bit chunkier?” Tubridy asked, needlessly putting her on the defensive. “Yeah, he said that, didn’t he,” says Kealy, grimacing. “But you know what, that’s live television.”

Tubridy’s “oh” moments are more a reflection of the demanding format than his own talents, however. The Late Lateis not the only programme to favour an eclectic mix of worthy and fluffy items, but it is the only show that will attempt a handbrake turn like last week’s segue from a 30-minute segment on Bloody Sunday to Lorraine Keane singing Young Hearts Run Free.

An unfashionably long running time and the fact it’s not pre-recorded, with the flaccid parts edited out, also differentiates the show. Pre-recording either the entire show (which has been done on occasion) or individual items – such as interviews with big-name stars who may not be in town on Fridays – would spoil the “anything can happen” feel, says Kealy, and in any case, Irish guests are more likely to cause a ratings spike.

The running length – 108 minutes plus ad breaks – is “a lot of time to fill every week” and Kealy says it’s “harder and harder to get people to stay with a channel for one hour, let alone two”. But he hasn’t been party to any discussions in RTÉ about cutting the duration.

Doing so would further drain the broadcaster’s pockets at an extremely difficult time financially, as not only would RTÉ lose some of the 22 minutes of advertising revenue built around the show, but it would have to pay for replacement programming.

In any case, last autumn’s ratings wobble was scarcely severe enough to prompt a panicky tinkering with what is already a flexible format. Last Friday the show captured a 46 per cent share of the available audience – this compares to a 47 per cent average share during Pat Kenny’s final season. That hardly suggests a crisis.

“The reality is that the show is doing very well at the moment,” says Kealy, who has been executive producer for a year. “Ryan’s first two seasons did extraordinarily well. They exceeded all expectations. The figures have now settled down a little bit and they’re at a level that we would have been happy with at the very start.”

Ratings are not necessarily a direct reflection of audience appreciation or cultural influence, however, and while some viewers may love to hate the Late Late, some viewers also hate to hate it; they expect something different from their public service broadcaster on housebound Friday nights.

Tonight’s line-up will bring “light and shade”, promises Kealy. Guests include Eamon Dunphy, presenter Christine Bleakley (she has a fitness DVD out), and a clutch of Irish Oscar nominees. But for anyone who wants to take their Late Latecriticisms and witticisms to the top, Kealy almost certainly will be logging on.

The Tubridy Years... So Far

September 4th, 2009

Actors Saoirse Ronan and Joan Collins, singers Sharon Corr and David Gray, footballer Niall Quinn and Cherie Blair comprise the line-up for Ryan Tubridy’s first outing as host. This being 2009, there’s another guest: Brian Cowen. The show secures average ratings of 927,000 – the highest in a decade – and a 62 per cent share of the audience watching television. His second show attracts an audience of 748,000 and a 55 per cent share.

September 3rd, 2010

Tubridy’s first show after the summer break features Tony Blair, who is asked whether he is a war criminal. (His answer is no.) Between September and December, average ratings reach 809,000 – a 12-year high – as Ireland’s economic crisis contributes to an overall rise in TV viewership.

February 11th, 2011

A combination of peroxide, lipstick and hyperactivity proves a winning combination as the Late Latepiggybacks on an even longer running media format: Eurovision. Excluding the toy show, the Late Lateachieves its highest ratings for the year, with an average viewership of 886,100, as the night sees Jedward chosen as Ireland’s representatives in Dusseldorf.

March 25th, 2011

The Green Room looks good on paper: Robert Sheehan, Amy Huberman, Sir Trevor McDonald and Mary Byrne. But after an interview with Ronan Keating where Tubridy fails to challenge him for blaming the media for his affair, the Late Lateis dubbed “utter sh**e” on Twitter by former director of RTÉ television Helen O’Rahilly. Tubridy later says Keating’s pop star status meant he didn’t deserve a grilling.

September 2nd, 2011

The Late Latereturns for its 49th series and Tubridy’s third, with an average audience of 650,000 watching guests including Sinéad O’Connor and Cuba Gooding jnr and a segment debating the place of religion in schools. However, an unfavourable comparison to the 832,000 average who tuned in to watch Blair on the first show sparks negative headlines.

October 7th, 2011

A ratings slump pushes the Late Latedown to an uncharacteristic sixth in the weekly chart, with the show attracting an average of 517,000 viewers, among the lowest it recorded in years. The show, which clashes with a critical Republic of Ireland European Championship qualifier, includes reality TV star turned body-builder Jodie Marsh, author Colm Tóibín, comedian Des Bishop and model Alison Canavan.

December 2nd, 2011

The Late Late Toy Showsecures its highest ratings for any programme on Irish television in 17 years as an average of 1,410,000 viewers tune in to watch a selection of kids outwit and outshine a typical adult line-up. Tubridy is in his element, only once flirting with Twitter ire by settling down among young readers in a book-laden area of the studio he jokingly dubs “nerd’s corner”.