Telefis At 40

 

Forty years ago tonight, as the old year of 1961 went out and the new year of 1962 came in, the State's first television channel went on air. Those who lived on the east coast or in border areas had enjoyed access for some years to BBC and independent UK television. But for the great majority of Irish people this was something new and unknown. Contemporary reports describe groups on the streets of small towns, watching the black-and-white screens flickering through the windows of the electrical stores.

The advent of home-produced television ranks as one of the great social and cultural watersheds of modern Irish history. It would be difficult to overstate its impact at so many levels and in so many aspects of national life. Historians and sociologists may argue about the extent to which Irish television reflected change or caused it. But the story of Ireland in the latter half of the 20th century cannot be told without placing RT╔ close to the core of the narrative.

It is indicative of RT╔'s central role in this society that no other national institution (outside of the Oireachtas) is subject to similar unremitting scrutiny by the public it serves. That scrutiny reveals an organisation which, at its best, can summon qualities of flair, imagination and courage. It is rich in talent and commitment. Sometimes - perhaps at its worst - it can be supine, dull and lacking in self-confidence. Yet it has never allowed its clear sense of public service to be diluted.

As the national broadcaster celebrates 40 years of television it faces challenges which lie largely beyond its own control. The competitive pressures of international, commercial media concentration make it impossible for a small country's public service broadcaster to thrive without firm political commitment. If RT╔ for the future is to be a medium by which this society can measure itself accurately and thoughtfully and through which it can understand the wider world, the people of Ireland must be prepared to pay for it.

If those in political authority are not willing to face up to this reality - and there are few votes to be gained by doing so - the future of broadcasting lies with the multinationals. Other small countries have made it clear that they will not allow this to happen. The signals - the evidence - of intent from Government here are at best ambiguous, at worst ominous.