- “It Is Against the Basic Concepts of Good Government to Subject Our People to Rosemary Clooney at the Public Expense”:Imported Programming on Early Irish Television
When Raidió Teilifís Éireann sponsored the publication of the Broadcasting and Irish Society series on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the beginning of Irish broadcasting in 2001, the entire set of publications focused on indigenous content. The tendency to privilege local material as a basis for understanding a television culture is understandable, if only because it is often most popular with audiences. However, the sidelining of imported content leaves a gap in our understanding of the experience of Irish television audiences from 1961 onward. Andrew Higson argues that although writing on national cinema focuses on domestically produced texts, national audiences construct their cultural identity on the basis of both indigenous and foreign representations. Given that from its inception the content of Irish television has been substantially (and occasionally primarily) constituted by imported content, this article seeks to reintegrate that element into our understanding of the national schedule between 1962 and 1966.
Foreign broadcast content played a key role in the decision to establish an Irish television service in the first place. Robert Savage cites the fact that by 1957 40 percent of the population of the Republic of Ireland could receive BBC broadcasts from Northern Ireland as creating “discomfort for political, religious, and cultural elites who [End Page 66] grew increasingly concerned at the content of programs which they regarded as objectionable” (Savage 10–11). Considering the BBC’s relatively staid content, the arrival of the more commercially oriented Ulster Television (UTV) in 1959 can only have exacerbated these concerns. Thus the desire to counter the influence of overseas content was a key factor driving the decision to establish an indigenous service, culminating in the 1960 Broadcasting Act and the creation of a television authority. The initial official aspiration for Irish television expressed back in 1958 by Kevin Boland (on behalf of the minister for posts and telegraphs at the time, John Ormonde) reflected these concerns:
We have a fair idea of what we would like to have and what we would desire to avoid. The question is what we can get. What we would like is a service Irish in origin and character that will enrich the lives of our people. … What we would like to avoid is a television service which is Irish in name only.(“Broadcasting in Ireland Enters a New Chapter” 1)
Given these aspirations, it is ironic that the service that emerged in the decade after 1961 became so reliant on imported material. The seminal Kaarle Nordenstreng and Tapio Varis report for UNESCO, Television Traffic—A One-Way Street? (1973), suggested that within western Europe, only Iceland depended more on television imports than Ireland. Fully 54 percent of Irish television output in their 1973 sample came from overseas (and in the main from the United States). This dependence was particularly acute in fiction—the report suggested that all drama series on Irish television were imported, as was 71 percent of children’s content (Nordenstreng and Varis 13, 22).
The 1973 report fueled concerns that developing countries were subject to cultural imperialism as Western television infiltrated national markets across the globe. The extent to which widespread circulation of U.S. fiction programming undermined the cultural autonomy of third-world nations (as investigated by Hamelink) or integrated countries into the U.S. economic system (as explored by Curtin) is not the subject of this article.1 As Michael Tracey has argued, such [End Page 67] effects are too often asserted without empirical evidence. To address such a question for Ireland would demand content analysis and consumption-behavior research beyond the scope of this study. However, Tracey also asserts that “it is, in fact, simply untrue to say that imported television programs, from the United States or other metropolitan countries, always have a dominant presence within an indigenous television culture” (34). This article examines whether this assertion holds true for the half-decade in which the template for Irish television broadcasting was laid down. It considers the extent to which imported programming constituted the schedule, delineates the...