A period of transition is fast approaching for RTÉ2. They are currently recruiting people aged 18-34 in market research, supported by a campaign called “Generation what?” to tell the broadcaster what it means to live in Ireland today. The ultimate aim of this survey is to produce programming suited to today’s youth. That’s no surprise when you look at the top performing programmes this year to date on RTÉ2, which illustrate a predictable trend of live sport dominating (6 nations), followed by the Eurovision coverage. It’s unclear what RTÉ2’s strategy will be when they eventually lose the 6 nations’ rights to rival TV3 in 2018 as to how they fill that gap in programming that performs and in particular for younger audiences.
One show that features in that list of top performers lends an insight into how they could address that loss - First dates, the Irish answer to the popular UK hit show on Channel 4. There is no doubt that its maiden series has been fruitful for the broadcaster and the reasons for that are as much its timing as the end product. If this show were produced a few years ago, I am convinced it wouldn’t have been as popular as it has been - the backdrop of the Irish dating landscape being completely different today to a generation ago, or even a couple of years ago.
First off, we are on the back of the equality referendum and we now live in a society that recognises equal rights to the LGBT community that is afforded to the rest of society. Secondly, technology has radically transformed the nature of our interactions, particularly dating. A generation before now that “courted” is now replaced by swiping left or right in hope of finding their prince or princess. We are now enabled (at least the single among us) to be dually opted in with a potential partner before progressing any further which eliminates the social discomfort of getting there.
Just over a decade ago, it appeared that everything was going to become some form of reality TV and while it never truly left our screens, the nature of it has changed for the better. We, as viewers, have become accustomed to reality TV shows that have one consolidated prize at the end of it. The winner gets a cash prize, a singing contract, or some other gain their fellow contestants missed out on. That dynamic on TV captivated audiences in the building of allies and betraying others in the route to winning. In that sense, reality programming moved away from actual reality, as the social experiments have conditions far too manipulated to be natural, or reactions that seemed too contrived to appear genuine. First Dates is the antidote to all of that. Even though there are 17 cameras filming daters, the main strain or nervousness will come from the person sitting a few feet from you. If you hit it off, you both win, if you don’t you both lose but the end goal is mutual. There is also something unique with a first date that is completely identifiable – be that the awkward lull in conversation, an overshare, the chaos around the bill. It would seem that every one of us watching who ourselves weren’t in the restaurant identify with each date.
So how big of a success was the show? I must admit I was sceptical beforehand, as I’m far more comfortable looking at our neighbours across the pond in these situations than us Irish. There is also a case for how we repackage overseas formats, and whether we always do justice to the original. In pure numbers it has outperformed other ‘reality’ shows, but its momentum show- on-show has grown (for example for 16-34 the audience grew by 40% from episode 1 to 2). If nothing else, it attests to the big draw of synchrony of watching something at the same time as everyone else – with social acting as that fulcrum that supports shared reactions.
All Adult Viewership of Season 1
* Doesn’t include repeats
** Average of first airing of episodes in series 1 only
*** doesn’t represent finale of First dates viewing
The numbers above don’t immediately indicate an incomparable success (though they are the best from this small set), but if you take into account the changing nature of viewing they look even better. Even 5 years ago when Tallafornia came onto our screens, for example, Netflix wasn’t available, broadcast players weren’t as polished as today and YouTube wasn’t quite the behemoth we know. The first episode of first dates, along with some behind the scenes footage, received 100,000 streams, which shows you how the player has arrived in line with linear TV.
The Irish version of the UK format has made perfect strategic sense for the broadcaster. The use of a successful format in one market and transferring it over (particularly with the awareness and opt-in from Irish audiences) lessens the burden of marketing the show; RTÉ didn’t have to explain the concept, they just have to make us aware that there is an Irish version. Our ability to discern whether this has been a good or bad representation is not really a matter of preference, production values or noise on social media, but does this show accurately depict Irish culture and the psyche individually from the UK parent? I would say an overwhelming Yes, in terms of the characters on show, the warmth and charm that is so uniquely Irish and how the tension balance that makes great TV was managed throughout.
Not only has RTÉ made a hit in terms of putting a mirror to modern day Ireland, but providing a remedy to young people’s tinder fatigue by returning to a more traditional setting in the blind date. Neither applicant has been able to social stalk their company beforehand and every reaction appears genuine which engaged viewers across almost every demographic. Whatever the results of what the ‘Generation what?” campaign yields for RTÉ, programming like First Dates could viably make up a bigger part of what the new RTÉ2 will look like.