IT WAS dark outside, on that night of the year once celebrated in ancient Ireland as the Celtic festival of Samhain. Inside the brightly-lit Connemara Coast Hotel, 500 guests gathered to enjoy a reception hosted by RTÉ.
We were there 10 years ago, on Hallowe’en 1996, to celebrate the launch of a new television station. It was one for which campaigners like Bob Quinn had fought long and hard.
As fireworks lit the sky over Galway Bay, Teilifís na Gaeilge (‘TnaG’) went on air from its studios down the road in Baile na hAbhann. The first programme broadcast that night, on what later became TG4, was a one-hour extravaganza of music and dance.
It incorporated panoramic views from around the country, as well as brief greetings from President Mary Robinson and Taoiseach John Bruton. Ireland’s Olympic swimmer and fluent Irish speaker, Michelle Smith, also took part.
The theme of the first programme was lighting up, a theme that reflected not only the glare of TV lights but also the flames of Hallowe’en bonfires. That programme was followed by a drama especially commissioned for TnaG, written by and starring Gabriel Byrne.
Many wondered then what TG4 would be like in years to come. Now they know. A decade on, it is a curious mix of old-fashioned local programming, trendy new shows and a bundle of unashamedly American commercial stuff.
At any given time this year, three out of every 100 Irish television viewers have been tuned into the Galway-based service (two out of three when it is in Irish). But, like Ireland’s other TV services, it is fighting its corner against new competitors and against the internet. Its audience so far this year is a bit smaller than it was in 2005.
TG4 has brought colour and variety to Irish broadcasting since its inception. It has also provided employment for many Irish programme makers, as well it might. It receives a generous share of public money spent on broadcasting here (about €20 out of every €100 for three out of every hundred viewers).
TG4 has launched the careers of broadcasters such as Grainne Seoige, who moved to TV3 and then to Sky. She is now co-presenting a new afternoon programme on RTÉ 1. It all helped to make the Irish language a bit more trendy.
But what TG4 has not done is make much impact politically, in terms of its current affairs output. Its executives may feel constrained because of a dependency on direct funding from the government — money given on a year-by-year, and grace-and-favour basis.
TG4 has certainly been a public relations success, with members of the public commonly remarking on how great it is. However, audience figures suggest the level of enthusiasm is not matched by viewership.
It has also been an outlet for advertisers who are allowed to place English language commercials even during Irish programmes: when it comes to broadcasting, the language that talks loudest is money.
From the outset, I was sceptical about the propaganda surrounding TG4, and about easy assumptions that it would help the Irish language to survive. It is, in some ways, the latest form of lip-service that has been of little practical value to the survival or restoration of Irish since the foundation of this state.
Champions of TG4 used to make much of the right of minority languages to public funding for broadcasting. Surely, then, by right, those now wishing to provide Polish, Chinese or Arabic (among other) broadcasting services in Ireland are also entitled to a substantial slice of state funding?
On that first night in Baile na hAbhann, I wished Cathal Goan, chief executive of TnaG, well. On balance, the station that he built up in Galway is worth having. But it is still shrouded in a potentially fatal ambiguity of purpose.
Is it meant primarily to increase the numbers of Irish speakers, to maximise the audience for its programmes of whatever quality, or to make excellent programmes in Irish? We still do not know and those who answer “all of the above” are copping out. When times get tighter, people will ask tougher questions.
It was only five years after TG4 was founded that its objectives were finally spelt out in legislation, in the Broadcasting Act 2001, Part VI. But these objectives are so broad as to be virtually all things to all people.
If it’s in Irish then it must be cultural. And other cultural needs must play second fiddle when it comes to broadcast funding.
A proposed new Broadcasting Act may lead at last to TG4 being set up as a company separate from RTÉ, of which it is still a subsidiary. But the proposed new law does too little to clarify TG4’s objectives and still fails to provide a solid base for its financing. This remains largely at the mercy of the minister for finance every year.
The best thing about TG4 has been its youthfulness. The worst its failure to live up to its motto of being “another way of seeing” (Súil Eile). It is certainly not an alternative perspective in a way that has made a radical impact at the heart of Irish society or that has disturbed people much.
I have no favourite single programme, although it was hard not to be delighted by Hector when he was fresh. Then the broth of a boy went off selling whiskey and horse-racing and making money in English.
TG4 also screens some excellent Irish and acquired documentaries. I least like those TG4 programmes that continue to associate Irish music with pubs, as though alcohol and the Irish mind depend on one another.
At least people cannot smoke in pubs now, so those entirely mind-numbing sessions that once passed themselves off as Irish culture are no longer quite as awful.
I also do not like its occasional hint of Provo politics. Provos need to be treated with special care, given a close association in the past between some Gaelic revivalists and a sort of fascist nationalism.
The biggest challenge facing the station is to maintain its edge now that it is no longer new. If it ceases to seem fresh, its peculiar mix of US commercialism and Irish language chat will seem even odder. The station could compensate for its maturing profile by making more courageous and serious current affairs programmes.
This week is a time for celebration. Unfortunately, the station has not spent a load of public money on reassembling survivors from its 1996 inaugural bash for another big party down in Connemara. Or else they left me off the invitation list.
Following the nostalgia this week, there will be time for reflection in Galway on Saturday, November 25. A seminar entitled ‘Looking back and looking forward: 10 years of TG4 — celebration and analysis’, is taking place in Irish at NUIG, and its organisers are wisely and inclusively providing simultaneous translation in English.
Details of the seminar in Irish and English (and why not Polish?) are available at www.dcu.ie/tg4.
Prof. Colum Kenny teaches broadcasting policy and journalism at Dublin City University.
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