Having long provided the bare minimum of current affairs coverage as obliged under its broadcasting contract, TV3 surprised many with its recent announcement of a revamped nightly news programme which will be hosted by Vincent Browne. But is this the channel’s first real attempt to develop a name for itself in the world of news, or will this be just another chapter in the long list of news-lite shown at Ireland’s commercial terrestrial broadcaster?
As part of its agreement with the BCI, TV3 must provide a certain amount of news and current affairs coverage on a weekly basis, the bulk of which is taken up by its news bulletins. That said specific current affairs programming is nothing new to TV3; the channel launched in 1998 with the Sunday news show ‘Agenda’, which was hosted by David McWilliams. Agenda was never meant to rival what RTÃ‰ were already doing with the likes of Prime Time and instead offered viewers a ‘week-in-review’ type programme, often including some very notable guests. It would be difficult to refer to it as hard hitting but it was certainly far from tabloid or trashy, nor did it shy away from proper debate where necessary.
The show was hindered by its awkward early-Sunday timeslot, however, not to mention the fact that it was stranded amongst some very toned-down news output elsewhere at the broadcaster. Perhaps for these reasons and others Agenda was cancelled some time in 2003/2004 with the numbers being made up by Ursula Halliagan’s The Political Party.
This programme has suffered from equally awkward placement on the schedule and has been noted, and in some places criticised, for the more jovial tone taken by Halliagan when interviewing guests.
So with two current affairs programmes under its belt what makes this latest addition worthy of note?
Well for a start, this is not a replacement to The Political Party but is instead in addition to it. This means that on the surface at least, TV3 is not just launching a programme to cover its contractual obligations but doing so above and beyond what it must. Secondly it’s a nightly programme and even if it is put at the relative graveyard shift of 11pm it would be an improvement on the uber-graveyard shift that is Sunday morning or night. Thirdly it is to be hosted by Vincent Browne, who has a strong reputation in terms of his journalistic work and has plenty of experience in broadcasting. (This may seem like a no-brainer when it comes to a programme host but it’s not unusual to see a radio or TV station pick up the likes of a print journalist on name alone only for them to display all the on-air charisma of a damp nappy.) Finally Ben Frow, the new director of programming at the station, has made it clear that he sees unique content as vital; particularly unique content that doesn’t try to ape what they’re already getting from ITV. With the additional money being thrown at developing the station by its new owners Doughty Hanson, potential is growing that TV3 might begin to take news seriously.
So this is why news junkies should allow their hopes to rise just a little in anticipation for this new programme. But there are reasons to be fearful too.
TV3 is a commercial channel which means it must attract audiences and do so in a cost-effective manner. Even companies tasked solely with providing news to people are seeing editorial budgets squeezed tightly at the moment so it’s hard to see the new programme becoming very agenda-setting. The exact format is yet to be announced but it would be hard to imagine it taking on much of an investigative role, but instead a day-in-review format with a few guests and experts followed by the next day’s headlines.
Another reason to be worried is that TV3 has taken the “and finally” approach to news since its inception and so have shows like The Political Party and even Agenda. Indeed Browne himself told The Irish Independent that he hoped to end each episode on a lighter note, which could signal a continuation of this pattern – but hopefully not.
It is hard to imagine Browne taking a tabloid route with what he does but at the same time the greatest of intentions will be stifled if the show is produced, researched and presented to the public in such a way. It would be too much to ask of TV3 to create a Newsnight-esque programme, especially given its lack of experience in current affairs to date, but perhaps this is the first step towards something similar, albeit on a smaller scale. Or maybe this move might scare RTÃ‰ into responding with something bigger and better but either way there’s more reason to expect good things over bad with TV3’s new show. At least for now.