Dublin City University
by Eithne O’Connell. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Birth of a Station
On 31 October 2006, TG4, the Irish-language television channel, which had started life as Teilifís na Gaeilge (TnaG), celebrated 10 years on the air. For many years prior to its foundation in 1996, various groups associated with Irish-language issues had lobbied hard for their own station, while other enthusiasts claimed that increased provision of Irish-language programmes within RTÉ’s mainstream scheduling would be more appropriate. At that time, there was considerable debate as to the primary audience that a separate, dedicated station might endeavour to serve. This debate was reflected in the two names initially proposed for the channel:Teilifís na Gaeilge or Teilifís na Gaeltachta, i.e. Irish-language Television orGaeltacht Television. Supporters of the general concept identified the need for some such service as urgent in the extreme in order to counteract the overwhelming and devastating effect of English-language broadcasting on the Irish-language competence of children, in particular, whether in the Gaeltacht, or being reared through Irish outside the Gaeltacht.
Although the idea of an Irish language station had been something of a political ‘hot potato’ through the 1980s and early 1990s, it eventually received all-party support in 1992 and in 1993, the then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Labour T.D, Michael D. Higgins of the Fianna Fáil/ Labour Coalition decided to push ahead with the idea. £4.5 million, derived from a ‘cap’ on RTÉ’s advertising, was set aside in the 1993 budget to cover the start-up costs for TnaG. The total cost in establishing the transmission and links networks and the construction of the station’s headquarters in the Connemara Gaeltacht was £16.1 million. Annual running costs increased from £10.2 million in 1996 to £16 million in 2001 and Euro 30 million in 2006. These costs are met by the Exchequer, with some additional income arising from advertising revenue (much of it rather inappropriately in English), sponsorship and increasingly, programmes sales. Very significant assistance in non-monetary terms comes from RTÉ which is annually required to provide over 360 hours of programming at no cost to TG4.
Programming and Penetration
In addition to the average of five hours of Irish-language material broadcast daily in the early years, the channel also carried other public service programming such as Question Time from Dáil Éireann and the European Broadcasting Union’s EuroNews, steadily increasing audience share by acquiring exclusive rights for a number of top sports fixtures and by re-broadcasting highly popular GAA footage from the sports archives. Within less than six months of the launch of Teilifís na Gaeilge, almost 65% of the Republic’s television sets were able to receive the channel and the nightly audience reach had risen to 250,000 viewers. Three months later, in May 1997, independent research revealed that the station was able to attract audiences of 500,000, i.e. 68% of sets in the Republic, for at least one hour’s viewing per week. By May 2001, 730,000 viewers were tuning in each day to TG4 and in 2007, the figure is 800,000. That represents a share of 3.5% of the national television market. Of course, not all of these viewers necessarily tune in specifically to watch Irish-language material. The real breakthrough came for the television station after it was re-branded as TG4 in 1999. The change in name and the restructuring of the schedule was part of a plan to establish it in Ireland alongside mainstream niche broadcasters BBC2 and Channel 4 (Ó Dubhghaill 2005). The precise choice of name incorporating the number 4 also helped to make the channel more prominent in television programme listings, where it started to appear in fourth position after RTE 1, Network/RTE2 and TV3.
The original stated aim of TG4, to provide the Irish people with a worthwhile alternative to what was already available in their multi-channel environment, was captured very well from the beginning in the station’s clever slogan Súil eile, which means literally another eye or perspective, i.e. another way of looking or seeing. Its very limited budget, especially in the early years, has placed obvious restrictions on the extent to which TG4 has been able to live up to its own vision. Nevertheless, it has from the outset offered quite an imaginative programming mix, which includes drama, music, sport, travel, soaps in Irish (and Gàidhlig or Scots Gaelic in the initial period) as well as films in other European languages, documentaries and current affairs. Perhaps most significantly, it has consistently identified children as a priority and has offered a wide range of programmes for this audience: dramas, quiz and game shows as well as some animation. In the early years much of this was bought in from other European countries and dubbed into Irish. Later the material to be dubbed became more mainstream, e.g. Sponge Bob Square Pants, The Muppets and even Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
While one might expect the station’s primary audience to be native speakers of Irish and others fluent in the language, the station’s approach has been much more inclusive than that from the outset. TnaG/TG4’s early policy of providing English-language Teletext subtitles on all pre-recorded material was evidence of the station’s wish to reach out to as wide an audience as possible. The initial use of Teletext technology meant that viewers who needed subtitles could select them as an option. This strategy won praise from many sectors, including the deaf community, and has certainly been a smart move from a commercial perspective, increasing audience reach significantly. Later, the subtitling policy became more heavy-handed, resulting in open English subtitles, i.e. ones which cannot be turned off, being provided on most pre-recorded programmes. There is considerable justification for criticism of English subtitles on Irish-language programmes as research has shown that it is impossible to ignore subtitles whether or not they are needed (O’Connell 2000). Irish speakers end up involuntarily reading English text while ostensibly watching/listening to Irish-language programmes. Moreover, it has been shown that the written word, i.e. a subtitle, requires considerably more cognitive processing and therefore has a much greater impact than the aural word. The result is that almost surreptitiously, supposedly Irish-language broadcasting provision has become largely bilingual.
Back in 1996, it was also the station’s long-term policy to provide subtitles in Irish on all pre-recorded programmes where financially possible. Such an approach would be of great assistance to native speakers of Irish, who may not be familiar with a particular dialect or some specialised or new terminology. It would also be of assistance to non-native speakers, adult learners, schoolchildren and those with impaired hearing. In the first year, Irish subtitles were provided for a bilingual Irish/Gàidhlig documentary series and for the Gàidhlig soap opera Machair. But at present very few programmes have Irish subtitles although the flagship soap opera,Ros na Rún, has had them for several years.
Staffing and Structure
The station operates as a publisher/broadcaster with a small core staff who work in areas involving programme-commissioning, acquisition functions, technical and presentation skills and administration. Most of the programmes broadcast are produced by the private sector and by RTÉ although the station has its own dedicated news service Aonad Nuachta Theilifís na Gaeilge, which operates from a state-of-the-art newsroom and studio at TG4’s headquarters in Connemara, with the assistance of a Dublin office and a number of regional correspondents.
As constituted from 1996 to the present, TG4 is administered by RTÉ but operates fairly autonomously thanks to the establishment of two bodies to oversee its development: Comhairle Theilifís na Gaeilge and Seírbhisí Theilifís na Gaeilge Teo. In April 2007, after many delays and much debate, TG4 is at last due to become independent. Ironically, the first head of TnaG/TG4, Cathal Goan, who is now Director General at RTÉ, is opposed to the move, saying it was not in the best interest of either TG4 or RTÉ. He and other more independent commentators have raised a number of controversial questions about such matters as future funding arrangements and the use of the RTÉ archive but although TG4 has consistently argued for independence, they have not succeeded in making a strong case publicly for the advantages it might bring.
It is still rather early to attempt to evaluate the significance of TG4 after just a decade during which it has been underfunded and ‘in limbo’ in relation to independence from RTÉ. However, reviews in the Irish and English language media on the occasion of its 10th anniversary indicate that the general public and even its main critics back in 1996 feel the station has made a good start and has carved a name for itself with some innovative broadcasting. Nonetheless, there has been genuine concern and well-founded criticism from the very beginning relating to the station’s poor funding and its consequent inability to offer a) full, continuous daily schedule through Irish and b) the same working conditions and remuneration to its employees as enjoyed by colleagues in RTÉ. Indeed, in November 2006, there was a threat of strike action on pay and conditions by employees (Reported in FOINSE 25 November 2006). There has also been criticism of the fact that the station does not appear to have a clear language policy and there is criticism of the standard of Irish spoken, not only by guests and interviewees, but also by some of the core or anchor personnel and actors in some broadcasts. TG4 has responded that the varieties of Irish to be heard on the station accurately reflect the realities of current Irish language usage, warts and all, rather than some linguistic utopia. The actual and potential impact of TG4 on the Irish language in its first ten years was one focus of a recent conference organised in November 2006 by DCU and NUIG. It is hoped that the proceedings, which are to be published in 2007, will act as a base line for further research in this area (O’Connell et alia 2007).
TG4 has certainly had a positive impact on employment numbers in the audiovisual sector. It now spends more than Euro 20 million per annum on independent Irish productions, supporting approximately new 350 jobs in small, private sector companies throughout Ireland. Moreover, as a result of the availability and use of the latest technology, many employment opportunities created directly or indirectly by TG4 have benefited those in ‘remoter’ parts of the country, particularly the Gaeltacht areas, though Connemara seems to have fared better than the Kerry or Donegal Gaeltacht areas. There are several factors involved in the current prominent position of Connemara in the audiovisual sector. One is surely the fact that during the 1980s, Údarás na Gaeltachta identified the strategic development of the audiovisual industry in the area as a goal (Walsh 2006). Another is the fact thatConnemara is the Gaeltacht with the largest critical mass of speakers. Its leading position is unlikely to be challenged in the foreseeable future, not least because both the largest Irish-language post-production company, Telegael, as well as the head quarters of TG4 are located there. What the future implications of this will be for the relative prestige and usage of the Ulster, Munster and Connacht dialects, remains to be seen.
Mac Dubhghaill, U. 2005. «Harry Potter and the Wizards of Baile na hAbhann: Translation, subtitling and dubbing policies in Ireland’s TG4, from the start of broadcasting in 1996 to the present day». Paper presented at Mercator Media Conference October 2005, Aberystwyth, Wales.
O’Connell, E. 2000. «The Role of Screen Translation: A response». Current Issues in Language and Society, Vol.7, No. 2, 169-174.
O’Connell, E., Walsh, J. and Denvir, G. (eds) (forthcoming) TG4@10- Proceedings of the ‘Súil siar, súil ar aghaidh’ seminar.
Walsh, J. 2006. The influence of the promotion of the Irish language on Ireland’s socio-economic development. Unpublished doctoral thesis DCU: Dublin.