Giving relevance and resonance to the Irish language through TnaG
The success of the X Files shows that a dreadful fascination with the unknown or the unseen feeds the fear which makes people criticise and attack what they have not seen and don't know about. Based on experience of the last few weeks, it is very obvious that the same applies to Teilifis naGaeilge. But there is no fear for TnaG. TnaG is making Irish-language television a part of everyday happenings in the culture of modern Ireland. For all the people of Ireland, and not a minority or elite grouping. TnaG has blended the language with the latest technology and talent to give Irish a living relevance and resonance. And TnaG has brought Irish-language broadcasting up to speed and ready to make the most of digital broadcasting to open up vast new opportunities for communication and experience-sharing at all levels.
The good news is that more and more people are seeing for themselves and getting to know TnaG and its programmes as a national service. Even though it is all being done on extremely limited budgets.
While TnaG was set up just under two years ago as a national public service television station funded by, and accountable to, the State, the station started with slim resources.
The level of funding provided from the Exchequer would finance three hours of broadcasting a day - two hours paid for by TnaG and one hour supplied from RTE. Instead, TnaG broadcasts an average of nine hours a day. This has been achieved by astute stretching of budgets, deal-making flair in our bargains with independent programme-makers, and a mission-driven sense of teamwork and flexibility in the working culture of the station at Baile na hAbhann.
All minority broadcasters, such as S4C, have been helped to break through the barrier through reliance on sustaining services and pumppriming funding to help a station get on its feet.
TnaG had none of this but is nevertheless beginning to build its own firm viewer-base across all age groups throughout the State. Consequently, TnaG has no apologies to make for the mix of English-language programmes built into the station's schedule. Without exception, in 8-to-10 prime time viewing all programmes are entirely in the Irish language.
While broadcasting an average of 64 hours weekly, critics should keep in mind that TnaG has no archives or supplies of Irish-language television programming other than original new work which can be bought in to fill out the schedule. As a new option among the channel choices from October 1996 and broadcasting in a minority language on a transmission system still out of reach of over 25 per cent of households nationally, TnaG knew from the start that building an audience would be slow. We said so publicly and we said figures would be low. We repeated time after time that growing an audience would take time.
Coming up to two years on air, TnaG is faring quite well and improving all the time. Three in every five hours of weekly output is in the Irish language. A further 7 per cent is the live coverage of the Dail provided exclusively by TnaG. Of the remaining 33 per cent, more than half is home-produced programmes.
The headline hunters who bandied around claims that most TnaG programmes do not command an audience of more 10,000 have either never bothered to ask, and most certainly never bothered to check. It is a matter of the greatest satisfaction to TnaG that over a two-week period when the station came under pressure on a variety of fronts, the station was drawing its best viewing figures.
TnaG was not among the losers in the official Nielsen audience count for the two weeks in which a new commercial station came to the Irish airwaves and RTE launched new schedules on two channels.
Instead, in those two weeks TnaG audiences were growing. Numbers viewing for 30 minutes or more a week grew by 59 per cent over the same period last year - from 292,000 to 464,000. In each of the two weeks, TnaG clocked up audiences of 20,000 or more for the top 14 programmes. Over the fortnight up to October 11th, Nielsen returns show TnaG with an average daily reach of 436,000, which is up from 298,000 a year earlier. In the same period TnaG had a weekly reach of 1.4 million - up from 1 million in the same period for 1997.
Helping to record these new highs at a time of greatest competitive pressure on TnaG were the Irish-language and home-produced programmes, which have become the backbone of the independent television sector in this State.
Thanks to the combination of flexibility and technology which helps TnaG to move with the flow of events, the last of the summertime series which focused on the All- Ireland Football final clocked up 43,000 viewers; a Christy Ring programme had 41,000 watching; the Cleas no Draiocht? new entry to the schedule drew 35,000 viewers; Ros na Run, the biggest drama series production in the State, hit the 25,000 viewers mark with each of its twice- weekly screenings and the critically acclaimed Eugene McCabe's Scealta O Theach na mBocht had 23,000 viewers. A switch of the main Nuacht TnaG bulletin into the pivotal 8 o'clock slot in the schedule held an audience of 20,000.
By any standard, this represents a major achievement by TnaG. While we will strive to continue this upward trend, I think we can look our critics, from whatever quarter, straight in the eye and say that we are fulfilling our remit and growing our audience.
In assembling a schedule of quality programmes in the Irish language, TnaG's compact headquarters staff works closely with the independent television production sector and contributes handsomely to the jobs and turnover of that sector.
Figures compiled by IBEC show that in 1996 TnaG spending on programmes made by independent television production companies, supported 1,419 jobs. That figure represents 64 per cent of the total numbers employed by the independents. As well as supporting jobs, the Exchequer funding which TnaG ploughs into quality Irish language programmes also contributes to the Exchequer. The £800,000 in direct returns to the Exchequer which flowed from TnaG commissions in 1996 represents 44 per cent of the entire returns from the independent TV production sector.
TnaG continues to be a pathfinder and a pioneering force. This week saw the first film festival premiere of three original short films commissioned. Financed by a £200,000 Oscailt scheme by the Irish Film Board and TnaG, the partnership initiative is already moving into its second phase. TnaG has also joined in a feature film international co-production in Irish and French which is currently being shot on location in Ireland. Next week, TnaG will launch its first live chat show with the 10-week run of Bernie Beo from the Black Box Theatre in Galway.
These are interesting times for all of us involved in the audiovisual production sector. A new Broadcasting Bill to be published soon will provide for the introduction of the digital television era in Ireland. TnaG is looking forward to playing a central role in these developments and is cheered by the Government's announcement that TnaG will have access to some of the digital infrastructure, with scope to develop a new range of services.
TnaG is not afraid of criticism. Neither is TnaG afraid to learn. But we know what we want to provide and we are learning how to market the unique brand of TnaG products to all of the Irish people.
Cathal Goan is chief executive, is Teilifis na Gaeilge