By Rónán Lynch.
While Village can do serious analysis of serious talk radio, we can also get down with the celebrity stuff that people crave, openly or in secret. In this issue, we turn our attention to the Irish television talk show, and Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday Night Show in particular. O’Connor occupies a unique slot in the Irish media world as a talk-show host who has developed a crackling synergy between the reality TV of the nation’s station RTÉ and the celebrity culture of the nation’s favourite newspaper, the Sunday Independent. His profile has risen on the tide of celebrity culture that has steadily filled the TV schedules. When there’s space to fill on television or in print, and there’s nothing obvious to run with, there will always be one available: the only issue is A, B or C list.
RTÉ 1 is home to Ryan Tubridy’s Late Late Show on Friday and Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday Night Show, with O’Connor’s show lagging slightly behind in the ratings, and much else. Both shows promise national and international celebrities, music and comedy, with the Late Late offering the additional attraction of political guests. Tubridy also has his daily slot on 2FM, though he never seems quite as comfortable with celebrity culture as O’Connor, whose second job is his high-profile spot in the Sunday Independent where he edits Life Magazine.
For this issue, Village looked over the 2013/2014 season of the Saturday Night Show, running from September 2013 to May 2014, drawing up a list of 128 guests who appeared on the show, but broadly excluding singers who didn’t sit to talk to the host. Predictably, the Saturday Night Show is a TV show about television. So, if you like television, or more particularly Irish television, you may like it.
For more than a decade the Sunday Independent has given O’Connor free rein to troll the nation. He’s dropped some spectacular clangers over the years, including his exhortation for people to plunge into the property market in September 2007, just as prices went off the cliff, and his resolute defence of Bertie Ahern long after most had decided that the former Taoiseach was living in an alternative reality. O’Connor’s broadcasting career began with a stint on the comedy show Don’t Feed the Gondolas with Seán Montcrieff as host during the 1990s, followed by a spell as a judge on the RTÉ talent show You’re A Star, and two years as host of the TV3 show The Apprentice: You’re Fired! O’Connor’s Apprentice was a ratings success despite its low production costs. The producers could film two shows in an afternoon and still compete in the ratings with RTÉ.
The synergy between O’Connor’s television career and his Sunday Independent column and editorship of the paper’s celebrity magazine Life encouraged the paper to campaign for O’Connor’s installation as a talk show in his own right. O’Connor’s move to prime time came in 2010, when Pat Kenny’s decision to vacate the Late Late Show caused a reshuffle at RTÉ, which moved Ryan Tubridy from his Saturday night Tubridy Tonight show over to the Late Late Show on Friday nights, leaving an empty slot on Saturday nights. RTE initially pitched a Brendan O’Connor-fronted show against the slicker Craig Doyle, with O’Connor’s show proving the more popular, particularly in the Sunday Independent, and he was invested as the regular host in 2011.
After three seasons of interviewing celebrities with nothing to say beyond promoting their products, O’Connor decided to ramp up the seriousness quotient, as he interviewed Barry Egan, the chief celebrant of celebrity at the Sunday Independent. Egan gazed down the couch at O’Connor and asked him how it feels to interview celebrities and soap stars every week. “I love it”, said O’Connor, going on to explain that the show would try to avoid the ‘PR rollercoaster’. “Some people only want to talk about their product. It’s like if I came in and kept going on about the Saturday Night Show is coming back on Saturday night at ten to ten, don’t miss it and all that”, said O’Connor, brilliantly satirising the onanism of the celebrity editor being interviewed by his own celebrity features writer while talking about the narcissism of celebrities. Of course, being a scion of the Sindo, it’s not entirely clear if O’Connor was being tongue-in-cheek.
Watching a Saturday-night talk-show, viewers aren’t expecting the parade of politicians and other worthies who populate daytime and weekend radio talk shows, and only three politicians featured during the entire season we looked at: Mary Mitchell O’Connor, who was talking about fundraising for breast cancer; the now-retired Mary O’Rourke; and Joan Burton, another surprising Sindo favourite, talking about her ambition to become leader of the Labour party.
The clever strategy of avoiding the PR rollercoaster turns out to be entirely aspirational, and the workaday formula turns out a lifestyle-oriented list of TV people and celebrities, chefs, sports stars, authors, stylists and comedians, though the show does have a good share of ordinary people, who make up about 15 per cent of the guests. Unfortunately, to qualify as an ordinary person on a television talk show, you generally need to have undergone some life-changing tragedy in the form of an execrable illness or the unexpected or impending death of a close family member. That’s the trade-off: most ordinary people only share their tragedies in public once. Most celebrities share the intimate details of their private lives with the general public as often and as vacantly as possible in exchange for wealth, fame and influence in the form of a rotating presence on the small screen.
The phenomenon of reality television and its attendant celebrity especially rising/falling celebrity permeates the Saturday Night Show. Little did celebrity culture realise that it spent 300 years awaiting the rise of reality TV.
Not that celebrity culture is anything new. From the eighteenth century, editors and reporters looked for publicly recognisable figures whose exploits would sell papers. The travails of jockeys, boxers, actors, comedians and criminals were closely followed and reports on the style and fashion worn by women from high and low society also shifted papers. With the rise in their turn of cinema, radio, television and the web, the platform for celebrities has expanded. The hierarchy is well defined: the top celebrities appear on the most-watched shows. Rising or declining celebrities thrill to invitations from early morning or mid-afternoon talk shows.
It’s 25 years since the strike by the Writers Guild of America inspired a producer at Fox Television to send cameras out with the LA police force. Digital editing allowed producers to lash together clips from vast amounts of footage. The show, called COPS, became a smash hit and spawned countless imitations around the world. A second wave followed with the theme of Big Brother.
Once the premise of cheap and cheerless reality shows had been established, a cascading multiplication of genres followed: shopping shows, property shows, beauty or fashion-makeover shows, fit families shows, masterchef type shows, people locked together in a house, isolated together on an island, or isolated in a jungle setting. Film franchises like the Hunger Games draw on the premises of reality television. US production companies have elevated reality television to a finely honed formula that morphs from season to season, and is now closer to augmented reality after producers realised that scripting the shows keeps the shock/schlock value high. (The voice of Bill Hicks, 20 years dead, returns: “Here is American Gladiators! Here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking heads together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom”.)
When O’Connor brought the Irish redneck comedy of the Hardy Boys to the Saturday Night Show, the audience looked completely baffled, but O’Connor was on to something. The rise of redneck reality television cashes in on that potent cringe-generating mixture of embarrassment and fascination that Americans feel for their southern counterparts. Watching poverty television, we’re relieved that although things are bad, we’re not yet eating roadkill.
Redneck reality shows like My Big Redneck Family or the highly-ranked Duck Dynasty have toppled the charms of the Kardashians and the Housewives of Miami, and repo TV is also big. Shows like South Beach Tow take the formula forward by using actors to create the scenes, which producers claims are based on ‘real stories’ [sic]. Another repo show, Lizard Lick Towing, counters by boasting that its reality television features real-life situations. Repo television is huge, and will surely arrive in Ireland soon with families having their cars and homes repossessed live on television, perhaps with narration by angry right-wing television presenters.
The true home of this genre is the TruTV cable channel which reaches 90 million Americans and a vast international audience. These aren’t obscure shows either. They make unimaginable profits, are produced by the biggest media companies in the USA, and you’ll find them on most cable packages in Ireland.
So it’s not a shock to find that Saturday Night Show relies heavily on media personalities and other celebrities from the world of reality TV. It’s all about the magic of television, where by dint of getting onto television, you’ve got every chance of staying on television, even as a D-list celebrity careering down through the talk show hierarchy.
The most popular guests in order of ranking are: media personalities, non-celebrites aka unfortunate ordinary people, journalists, singers, sports stars, chefs, stylists and comedians. Women make up about 40 per cent of the guests, which is not bad by Irish standards though it still has some way to go. A quarter of the guests over the 2013-2014 season are RTÉ regulars such as Gerald Kean (The Restaurant, Celebrity Bainisteoir), Norah Casey (Dragons’ Den, Norah’s Traveller Academy) and Bill Cullen (The Apprentice). Then there are the TV chefs and celebrity chefs, which seem to be one and the same thing: Marco Pierre White, Nevin Maguire, Kevin Dundon and Darina Allen.
There’s a cosmpolitan chunk of non-RTÉ celebrities including Dr Leah Totton (UK Celebrity Apprentice), Vincent and Flavia (Strictly Come Dancing) and Dr Christian Jennsen from Embarrasing Bodies; and from the USA trainer Jessie Pavelka who crossed over on to UK reality TV with Motivation Nation. Actors from Love/Hate and Coronation Street fill out the guest sofa. It seems obvious in retrospect that Love/Hate filled a gap that reality television couldn’t reach, though it’s surely out there in the future somewhere: reality TV shot from the point of view of criminals.
That cultural cliché the song contest has thrived on reality TV, which means that Jedward earn themselves more than one appearance on Saturday. That Louis Walsh never showed up seems like an oversight. Sports stars, who are also celebrities (and often now “celebrity brand ambassadors”), are one of the programme’s favourite guest categories, with rugby players dominant.
O’Connor has produced some scoops on the Saturday Night Show, including the first TV interview with Pussy Riot members Nadja Tonnokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina following their release from Russian prison in December 2013. The interviewer and interviewees did have something in common: O’Connor enjoyed a brief career as a singer parodying a priest, while Pussy Riot rose to fame with a performance of a punk prayer in a Russian church. Accompanied by a male interpreter, the women arrived on set, with O’Connor kissing each of the three on the cheeks. The interpreter explained that as O’Connor offered to greet each of them with a kiss, and Nadja had declined, a compromise was reached where O’Connor would kiss both men and women. After this awkward interlude, O’Connor begins the interview with: “So, girls…” and continues to address them as ‘girls’ throughout, oblivious to the politics of this century, and the last.
When Tonnokoikova admits mixed feelings about sitting on a couch in a TV studio talking about “reformist” activities, O’Connor interjects to apologise for the “capitalist running-dog bourgeois couch” and promises to make available a bed of nails the next time. Look it up on Youtube and experience the bed of nails for yourself.
One episode not to be found on Youtube is the early 2014 appearance of Rory O’Neill, better known as drag queen Panti Bliss, which generated the storm that was Pantigate when O’Neill alleged that certain journalists were homophobes, resulting in RTÉ paying out damages to the named journalists. One wonders what will become of the Brendan O’Connor / Barry Egan / Sinéad O’Connor love-in now that regular guest Sinéad has pronounced that she’s joining Sinn Féin, enmity of which has long been a Sindo requisite and O’Connor identifier?
O’Connor’s defender-of-the-powerful act along with his role of attack dog for the Sindo makes him one of the candidates for the currently vacant editorship at the paper. Even allowing for the boosterism and trashy anti-intellectualism of the Sindo, there’s still something venal and mean-spirited about Ireland’s bestselling Sunday paper. O’Connor has had a hand in making the paper that way. It’s hard to see him being able to keep his Saturday Night Show slot while taking on the editorship of the Sindo, although O’Connor has hinted that he does see some kind of natural progression from Saturday nights. Ryan Tubridy should be feeling nervous. And not just from the more talented Ray D’Arcy.