Thoughts on 50 years of Irish TV
This is a republished version of an article I wrote for the newspaper on January 7th, 2012, on the subject of RTE TV’s 50th anniversary, titled ‘A window on the nation or a mirror of our society?’ You can read the original here.
IN THE history of Irish politics, only one electoral result can be unequivocally ascribed to the influence of television. In 1997, the voters of Donegal South West elected Tom Gildea as their TD in support of their campaign to retain their traditional deflector systems, which allowed them to pick up British TV signals from Northern Ireland. This week we’ve been celebrating 50 years of Irish TV, but there’s been little or no mention of Gildea.
The narrative of “indigenous” television allows little scope for the transnational nature of the medium, both in terms of the “foreign” channels we watch and the “foreign” programming on our domestic channels. At the same time, many of the most popular programmes on television are Irish-produced. The history of Irish television, from the means of production through the control of transmission to the desires of the audience, is not easily simplified.
Television on this island actually began with the launch of BBC TV in Northern Ireland in 1953, but the history of Irish TV is inevitably dominated by RTÉ. From its inception, RTÉ has had to compete in large parts of the country with British broadcasting, widely and often correctly considered the best in the world. Facing both ways has therefore been a natural position for the broadcaster from the beginning and continues to this day. Simultaneously criticised for behaving like an arrogant monopolist in its own market and being a pale imitation of its British counterpart, RTÉ’s often defensive reaction to criticism is to some degree understandable.
Therefore, it has always been in the broadcaster’s interest to promote a simpler counternarrative, where all our imaginations have been shaped by its programmes and our lives enriched by its home-grown content. But, while some of its stars and programmes down the years are admired and even loved, it’s not so clear that the broadcaster itself is valued in the way the BBC is by British audiences.
Yes, over the years, RTÉ has done a fine job of covering the great national setpieces. And yes, you may feel a twinge of nostalgia at that clip from Wanderly Wagon or from an old All-Ireland final, but the Reeling in the Years effect relies largely on the fact that, when it came to filming Irish people in their natural habitat, until the last decade or so RTÉ was the only show in town. In that sense, it owns our memories (now, they belong to YouTube).
Nor do overblown claims for its pivotal role in changing Irish society, for good or ill, over the past half-century, completely stand up. Irish-produced television was just one of the windows which opened up to the outside world, along with the dismantling of censorship and the arrival of consumerist popular culture. And it was a cautiously opened one at that.
If, then, rather than a window, Irish television holds a mirror up to Ireland, what does that mirror reveal? A reluctance to depart from received wisdom? A preference for the tried and trusted over the new and challenging? Occasional flashes of brilliance? A tendency to self-mythologise?
In all these respects Irish television, as embodied in RTÉ, is a pretty accurate reflection of the society from which it sprang. That is not to deny the contribution of the many gifted programme-makers who gave their talents to Irish television. We should rightly celebrate the work of dramatists such as Wesley Burrowes, documentary-makers like Seán Ó Mordha and children’s entertainers such as Eugene Lambert.
But looking at the track record of Irish TV, one can’t help wondering about the sins of omission rather than those of commission, the roads not taken. RTÉ endured and outlived the long reign of the engineers, escaped from the clutches of entryist political cabals and survived the malevolence of Ray Burke. For the most part, it avoided really serious clashes with governments (which itself might be seen as a mark of failure). And not unimportantly it brought pleasure to millions of people.
But it could have been much better. An opportunity was missed in 1978 when the second channel (now RTÉ Two) was not licensed to an independent operator – Ireland would have to wait almost two more decades for competition to arrive in the domestic market. As a result, the independent production sector, which in other countries really started to take off in the 1980s, stalled in Ireland. By the time Michael D Higgins unlocked some of the potential of the industry in the early 1990s, the moment had passed, and TnaG (as it was then) and TV3 emerged into a much more difficult market.
Any judgment on quality is inevitably subjective, but a strong case can be made for the past 15 years as the best that Irish television has seen. Is it a coincidence that this is the period in which we’ve started to see domestic competition? Or that people with programme-making backgrounds started to be appointed as directors general of RTÉ?
The fact that there’s been more of everything – more drama, more documentaries, more current affairs, more sport – does not necessarily mean that quality has improved. But there has been enough good work across all those areas and others to outweigh the inevitable missteps and failures. A larger independent production sector has contributed, while faster and cheaper technology has reduced the costs of production. The hopes of some activists that these developments might lead to a new strand of strong community television have not been fulfilled, though.
The medium now stands on the brink of another of the technological sea changes which define it. You no longer need a television to watch television: you can already watch any free-to-air Irish television channel online. Later this year, Netflix will bring its video streaming service to Ireland, putting another nail in the coffin of the dying DVD industry. It’s a simple (if illegal) matter to download the latest episodes of the hottest new international shows, or to access services such as Hulu. Electronics manufacturers are falling over each other to bring web-enabled television sets to market. And the giants of the tech world, Apple and Google, are hovering around broadcast TV as they did previously around music and publishing.
Since his appointment as director general last year, Noel Curran has refined RTÉ’s position: in his formulation, RTÉ provides an indigenous bulwark against multinational media entities such as Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, which already dominate the Irish media landscape through their control of newspapers, transmission systems and TV channels.
It’s a more sophisticated reframing of the traditional argument in favour of Irish public service broadcasting, positioning RTÉ as the plucky little local hero rather than the big, bad State-owned monopolist, and it has come with a new openness to discuss sharing content with others (including The Irish Times ).
For that argument to convince fully, though, RTÉ needs to be aware of its own responsibilities when it comes to preserving local diversity in the digital landscape, looking to what the BBC has done in the UK in curtailing the growth of some of its online services. It also should become more generous in acknowledging that public service content is no longer confined to the current legal definition of public service broadcasters.
For the most part, the standard of political discourse around broadcasting in Ireland has been appallingly low, rarely rising above a point-scoring obsession with stars’ salaries. Too often, the regulatory and legislative structures put in place have been concerned with the commercial market rather than the marketplace of ideas. And, due to political inaction, there are glaring anachronisms: it’s not clear, for example, why RTÉ should still have to take responsibility for the national transmission network, or should have to deal with the fallout from the failed digital terrestrial television rollout.
Ultimately, the strongest arguments in favour of continuing to fund public service content are cultural, not commercial. In a globalised, media-saturated world, the need for Irish people to hear and see their own stories and experiences reflected and explored on screens of whatever sort or size remains.