As TV3 launches weekend breakfast TV today, John Meagher heads to the studio to meet Anna Daly and the team of morning TV veterans.
Mark Cagney has no interest in pulling his punches when talking about Morning Edition, RTÉ’s short-lived attempt to create its own breakfast TV show.
“If I was the programme director here,” the veteran presenter of TV3’s Ireland AM says, a mischievous smile beginning to form, “and I wanted RTÉ to put on a breakfast programme that would stand no chance against us, I couldn’t have done it any better than the way they did it.”
Then comes the right hook: “They were saying they weren’t going to do all that light, fluffy, fashiony thing. But that light, fluffy, fashiony thing, as it was labelled, includes human interest, social issues, interviews with whoever is relevant.
"It can be anything from the price of school uniforms to the guy who decides to rape his girlfriend when she’s asleep because he can. So they were poo-poohing the lifestyle stuff and I had to laugh. I thought, ‘What are they playing at?’”
Despite the efforts of respected broadcaster, anchor Keelin Shanley, and a well-regarded backroom team, Morning Edition was axed after just two seasons because its ratings were pitifully low.
Senior executives in Dublin 4 might want to pay heed to the words of Cagney, who’s in playfully combative mood just minutes after finishing another instalment of the three-hour “insatiable beast”, as he calls Ireland AM.
“Where they could have done us damage was if they went on at 7am with the resources of the RTÉ newsroom because we don’t have those resources, or indeed that history or legacy,” he says.
“But coming on with a current affairs offering an hour after we had gone through the days news… no, I’m not surprised it didn’t work.”
As one of the longest running shows on Irish television, Ireland AM patently does work, and TV3 bosses are so confident in the strength of the brand that it is being rolled to Saturdays and Sundays from today.
Ireland AM regular, Anna Daly will host, alongside actor Simon Delaney (Saturdays) and politician-turned-broadcaster Ivan Yates will host Sunday’s show.
“It will be a different programme, because there’s a different mood at weekends and it won’t be as female-driven obviously.”
Cagney cut his teeth in the embryonic Radio 2 (later renamed 2fm) before moving to commercial radio at the end of the 1980s and then to the fledgling TV3, which opened for business in 1998. He has been at Ireland AM from the start and is better placed than most to assess the relationship Irish people have with breakfast TV.
“Ireland AM launched with a blaze of glory 16 years ago. There was loads of publicity and excitement and that was grand for about a month and then it just went…” - he makes the noisy sound of air being let out of a balloon.
“We weren’t just launching a new programme, we were trying to change the culture of people’s viewing habits and we didn’t seem to be getting any traction so we all went, ‘All right, this is it, we’re dead. Let’s just see out the end of this contract’.
“When we came back after the Christmas break, there was this sense that if we were going down, we would go down by just being ourselves and not pretending to be anything different.
"And we were relaxed, resigned to our fates, maybe had a sense of happy fatalism and perhaps the viewers responded to that and thought, ‘There’s an honesty to what these guys are doing.’”
Cagney attributes the appearance of the writer, Patricia Scanlan to a turning in the show’s fortunes .
“She was great and lots of other interesting guests started coming from then on. People used to wonder how we could compete with the big-budget offerings in the UK, but the simple fact is Irish people want to see Irish content. They say all politics is local and the same, roughly speaking, can be said about broadcasting.
“The secret of success is building a trust with the audience and that’s predicated on being left on air long enough, even when your ratings are almost in minus figures.
"We developed a quintessential TV family [of presenters] with me as the father and the likes of Claire [Byrne] or Sinead [Desmond] as the mammy and Aidan [Cooney] and Alan [Hughes] as the two brats.
"Like the best families, we’d look out for each other – you’d never send a hospital pass to someone and you’d dig them out of a hole if they were in trouble. After a while we realised, to use a music analogy, that this might be the best band we’ll ever play in so let’s look after it.”
Nobody, he quips, was watching for the extravagance of the set in the early days.
“It was,” he says, “worse than Fair City. It really was just cardboard and sticking plaster, but if the content and guests are engaging enough, the background stuff doesn’t really really matter.”
The current offering, housed in TV3’s newish HD studio, is far superior and ensures there’s no longer embarrassment when an international celebrity is on the promotional rounds – once, that is, they have got over the surprise of going to a television studio in a faceless west Dublin industrial estate.
Anna Daly has been with Ireland AM for six years.
“I came on board when it was a well established show, so it felt quite safe,” she says.
“The weekend shows will be much more of a gamble.”
The new shows, dubbed Saturday AM and Sunday AM, will give Daly the opportunity to prove her worth as a permanent anchor.
Although she feels a sense of trepidation about what knife-sharpening social media critics will think, she believes it stands a strong chance of connecting with a new audience.
“There’s nothing like it on Irish television at the moment and I think there are plenty of people who will watch an Irish offering if its relatable and enjoyable,” she says.
“I love Soccer AM [Sky 1] and really enjoyed Something for the Weekend [a BBC stalwart until 2012] and we’d hope to bring some of the fun and irreverence of those to these shows.”
As a mother of two boys – aged two and three – she says the weekend shifts will allow her more of that elusive work-life balance.
“I didn’t have to do nearly as many ‘earlies’ as the other guys, but getting up at 4.30 after one of the kids has been teething that night does take its toll.”
Daly, who worked as TV3 marketing manager before being encouraged to screen test for Ireland AM, says she will continue to deliver a “relatable” style of presentation.
“To give you an example, I remember coming back off maternity leave after having my first boy, James, and I had to anchor the programme because Sinead [Desmond] was away. I had knots in my stomach because for six months I was a mummy at home and now I was back in front of the cameras.
"Halfway through the show, Mark said to me, ‘How did you feel about coming back today?’ I could have given the super-confident broadcaster answer or I could just be honest and I thought, ‘F*** it, I’ll just be honest’ and I said I’d been sick the night before with nerves and that I had this feeling that I wasn’t relevant to people anymore.
“Well I couldn’t get over the the amount of people, random people in Tesco or wherever, that came up to me and said, ‘I too was absolutely crapping myself coming back after maternity leave’.
"You’re thinking about the person who’s done your job when you’re gone. Did she do a better job? Did people like her more? All that stuff.”
Relatability is a message Cagney preaches too.
“About 10 years ago, the RTÉ salaries thing blew up and it came out on the paper that people were on a million a year, or half a million a year, and viewers were going, ‘What!?’ There was a bit of resentment but more importantly and more subtly, it removed those broadcasters from the same level as their audience.
"It was, ‘How in the name of God can you talk about stuff that’s affecting me?’ There was this feeling, ‘Well Pat [Kenny] is a big star and Gerry [Ryan] is a big star’ and then there’s us and we’re on five times a week, 50 weeks of the year, so there was no them and us when it came to viewers and that’s still the case today.”
“You wouldn’t want to be a prima donna,” Daly adds, “not in a country as small as this, where you only have a handful of true celebrities like Brian O’Driscoll.
"We’re just presenting a TV show, and we’re very happy if you let us into your kitchen or living room. But that’s it.”
Saturday AM starts today and Sunday AM is on tomorrow.
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