When Ryan Tubridy hosts his final Late Late Show on May 26th, it will be against a backdrop of profound change in how Ireland watches television. Tubridy sprung a surprise this week by announcing he is stepping away from the series after 14 years. But the challenges facing the presenter of an institution such as the Late Late are very different today compared to when he took over from Pat Kenny in 2009.
Back then, the Late Late’s major competitors were the UK channels, with their bigger budgets and, in the case of the Graham Norton Show, more famous guests. Today, Tubridy and Norton alike struggle to remain relevant as streamers such as Netflix reshape our relationship with the small screen.
In its Gay Byrne prime, the Late Late was a national talking shop where the country went to contemplate Ireland’s fraught relationship with sex, religion and politics. It was must-see television with stellar ratings, with audiences for Byrne’s final season in 1999 averaging over 900,000. Now, the Late Late is no longer where we go in search of weekend catharsis. So, viewership has plunged – falling to below 400,000 in 2022.
The Late Late’s decline is, at one level, an Irish story. It speaks to our emergence from the dark ages of the 20th century when the series functioned as a sort of national confession box. But it also reflects the huge shifts brought about by Netflix, Disney+ and their rivals. The streamers have dazzled audiences with movie-level production values against which the BBC is powerless to compete, let alone tiny RTÉ.
That isn’t to say the Late Late has no place in our media landscape. The annual pre-Christmas jamboree that is the Toy Show is one of those rare occasions when we all come together for a shared cultural moment. And during the pandemic, the Late Late reclaimed, to a degree, its former position as providing a window into the Irish soul. The challenge facing Tubridy’s successor will be to honour that legacy, while finding their footing in a fast-changing landscape.