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The Late Late Rollercoaster

Beginnings, endings, Oireachtas hearings: A look back at The Late Late Show's rollercoaster year

Reflecting on a most abnormal year for one of the world’s longest-running chat shows.

“YOU’RE HOPING FOR good things in television and show business, generally?”

When Gay Byrne posed this question to a young Patrick Kielty during a 1997 recording of The Late Late Show, nobody could have anticipated the circumstances around which the County Down man would eventually become the latest host of RTÉ’s flagship chat show. 

Kielty is just over four months into the job now, has his first Toy Show under his belt, and seems to have settled into his new role with relative seamlessness. Normal service appears to have resumed after the most abnormal of years.

On 15 March, Kielty’s predecessor Ryan Tubridy announced that he would be stepping down from his duties as Late Late Show host after 14 years. 

A suitably lavish goodbye farewell edition of the show aired in May. Tubridy’s last stand saw him bidden farewell by familiar faces from Toy Shows past, Paul McCartney, two members of The Muppets (over video), and gifted a red Vespa by the members of U2.

In his emotional closing remarks, Tubridy dedicated his final appearance as Late Late Show host to his family, and said: “I want to say thank you to you, the viewers, who stuck with us and with me over the past 14 years. Your loyalty and your decency and your kindness and your generosity has taken my breath away on a weekly basis.”

By that time, Kielty had been announced as Tubridy’s successor, while Tubridy had stated his intention to remain in situ for his daily morning radio programme on RTÉ Radio One.

Screenshot 2023-12-19 at 10.07.37 Kielty and Gay Byrne during a 1997 episode of The Late Late Show

The 2022/2023 season of the show had already finished by the time it was rocked by a scandal that dominated headlines all summer long.

Towards the end of June, RTÉ came under intense scrutiny following revelations that secret payments had been made to Tubridy over the course of the last five years. 

For those who need a refresher on the details: RTÉ made an announcement that between 2017 and 2022, the national broadcaster had paid Tubridy €345,000 more than had been disclosed to the public in their annual high-earners report. 

€225,000 of the payments were arranged through a special commercial deal with Renault which was supposed to see Tubridy host three live “road-shows” for the car manufacturer. RTÉ agreed to underwrite this agreement, meaning that when Renault pulled out, they paid Tubridy out of their own pocket.

The scandal immediately became the object not only of public outcry, but two different Oireachtas committees. Over the course of these entertaining and, at times, bizarre interrogation sessions, grave executive level mismanagement at RTÉ was exposed, and it was revealed that the payments had been made to Tubridy through a UK-based barter account. 

The hearings were watched widely, with several moments going viral, and the fallout led to the accelerated departure of RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes, who had already announced her intention to leave the post in July. Instead, she was suspended by the RTÉ board before handing in her resignation with immediate effect. 

Some of the most memorable details to emerge from the hearings pertained to the ill-fated Toy Show: The Musical project. In July, documents seen by The Journal revealed that the inaugural Toy Show musical last year made just €495,961 in revenue against costs of €2,699,193. In total, the project made a loss of €2,203,231.

A breakdown of costs associated with the musical, which was spearheaded by RTÉ’s Director of Strategy Rory Coveney, shows that almost half of the cost went towards hiring the Convention Centre venue, and “showrunning costs”.

Appearing before the Oireachtas, Coveney also revealed that the show’s set and costumes were being stored at a cost of €8,000 per annum “until we decide if we’re doing it (again).” Coveney was one of several RTÉ executives to resign in the wake of the scandal, and new Director General Kevin Bakhurst has since confirmed that the musical project has been scrapped entirely.

It was not only the executives who bore the brunt of the secret payment scandal however. In the ensuing months, payment of the licence fee utterly collapsed with a projected deficit of €21 million for the year. It was against this stark fiscal backdrop that RTÉ secured a bailout worth €56 million, which includes a plan to cut 400 staff over the next five years and outsource significant chunks of its production going forward.

NUJ Dublin broadcasting branch chairperson and RTÉ education correspondent Emma O Kelly described the proposals as “bleak”. 

Tubridy, for his part, has found pastures new since RTÉ announced they would not be welcoming him back to his old radio slot. The broadcaster is scheduled to start the next chapter of his career at Virgin Radio in the United Kingdom, presenting a show that will be simulcast 10am to 1pm Monday to Friday on Q102. As part of his new contract, Tubridy will also present and Ireland-only show which will air on Q102, Cork’s 96FM, Limerick’s Live 95 and LMFM. 

Even incoming host Kielty ended up feeling the effects of the scandal, with the full terms of his pay disclosed to the Oireachtas, though not before Kielty agreed to waive €50,000 in expenses. The new Late Late Show earns €250,000 per season over the next three years, with each season running for 30 episodes.

The announcement of Kielty as Tubridy’s replacement marked a major departure for RTÉ, in more ways than one. It was the first time that the reins of the show, which has been on air since 1962, had been turned over to someone who was not by any means a Montrose stalwart.

The show, which at times has seemed notoriously resistant to change, has since undergone a relatively significant change under Kielty. The show is shorter now, pared back to 90 minutes, including ad breaks, from its familiar runtime of two hours. 

In another break from tradition, guests are now kept secret until the show airs. Previously, guests had been announced on the Thursday morning before broadcast. Already this has led to some stellar and surprising moments of interviewing, most notably the appearance of Republic of Ireland footballer James McClean, who made his first appearance on the show to discuss his autism diagnosis and the sectarian abuse he has received throughout his career.

Kielty was also handed the daunting challenge of presenting his first Late Late Toy Show just 24 hours after the Dublin riot, which followed the stabbing of three children and one woman in her 30s. The 52-year-old handled the task admirably, his years of broadcasting experience seeing him through what is always a chaotic night at the best of times. Whether he can hack the equally frantic Valentine’s Day show remains to be seen.

While these changes are significant given the period of stasis that the show had entered under Tubridy, it has certainly been no revolution. An updated set, a funnier host and the odd surprising guest to be sure but, ultimately, the show follows the same formula it always has. It exists as a liminal mish-mash, neither comedy chat show nor current affairs discussion programme, still somewhat over-reliant on guests who’ve been trotted out one too many times, not unwatchable but rarely riveting.

The sanitised nature of the show remains a bone of contention among critics. In October, the Irish Independent reported that there was disquiet among some staff on the show over Kielty’s failure to ask former Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan about the CervicalCheck scandal in the season’s second episode. Similar concerns were raised over an interview with boxer Carl Frampton, wherein Kielty did not ask any questions about Frampton’s former association with MTK, the boxing management company formerly owned by Daniel Kinahan. Amid this tension, executive producer Jane Murphy left the show.

After a rollercoaster year, The Late Late Show has resumed its same old safe speed. Disquiet around the grounds of Montrose, however, has only intensified.