4 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Special Feature: Industry Discusses Irish Language TV
02 Sep 2010 :
Irish language series An Cor
With the launch of Irish broadcasters’ Autumn schedules IFTN spoke with broadcasters and producers of Irish language programmes to get their (often varying) take on the current issues facing programming in our native tongue.

Following the flurry of activity that comes with the announcement of Irish broadcasters’ autumn line-up and the news that Northern Ireland Screen’s Irish Language Broadcast Fund (ILBF) is raising the minimum language requirement in funded programmes from 60% to 70%, IFTN has concentrated on a specific area of Irish programming – that of programming in our native tongue. Giving their views on the upcoming highlights in Irish language television, evolving Irish language audiences and making Irish cool are; Commissioning Editor for Irish Language, Multiculture and Education for RTÉ, Mairéad Ní Nuadháin; TG4 Commissioning Director Micheal Ó Meallaigh and BBC Northern Ireland’s Executive producer for Irish Language, Antaine O’Donnaile; along with Pierce Boyce, managing director of Abú Media; and Sheila Friel, executive producer with Belfast’s Imagine Media.

Firstly, a short introduction to the line-up of Irish language programming that audiences can look forward to:
Throughout the autumn months TG4 will present amajor new series profiling each of the 1916 Proclamation signatories; the story of the man who invented the documentary film using the Aran Islands as his testing-ground; Brown Bag Film’s animation series ‘Olivia’; ‘Gualainn le Gualainn’, a revealing television history of Irish rugby; and a travel series chronicling Hector O hEochagáin’s invasion of Canada. A full profile on the TG4 Autumn schedule is available in this recent news piece - read it here

RTÉ, on the other hand, will launch the Irish language sector of their autumn schedule with ‘Abháinn’, a profile of Suck, the Lee and the Boyne with Kevin Cummins on board as series producer. The broadcaster, which makes most of its Irish language programming in-house will also, this season, see the return of ‘CSÍ Fada’ again produced by Kevin Cummins. A new series of  ‘Scannal’ is also currently shooting and at the end of September RTÉ will show a programme presented by Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh called ‘Ceol gan Aois’ which features an orchestra of older people from around Ireland as part of RTÉ’s themed ‘Coming of Age’ week. Competitive series ‘An Cór’ from Sideline productions has also been re-commissioned as has two new series including Pat Collins’ ‘The Silence’ and a 6 part series entitled‘Dance Off’ featuring Brendan de Gallai from Riverdance and Dearbhla Lennon is also active in the six part series. The latter is expected to transmit early 2011.

As to BBC NI, starting Monday, September 6th the channel will have a daily Irish language slot for young people which will run for three weeks. This slot will see the transmission of an  Irish language version of the CBeebies ‘Tellytales’ called ‘Telly Scéalta’. The station’s Irish Language chief Antaine O’Donnaile describes it as a “25 minute series that we’ve re-commissioned in the Irish language using 40 children from 14 bunscoileanna in Northern Ireland who provide the voice-overs and sing and act in the series, so there’s a great sense of ownership with it and we know that it will be a big hit.” The channel will also welcome Jam Media’s ‘Damhsa Liom’ and Imagine Media’s ‘An Bhearna Bhaoil’ amongst other productions.

Imagine Media will also this season see the broadcast of several of its productions including: ‘Déan Damhsa Liom’, 10 x 15 minute preschool series for BBC2 NI; ‘Plandáil Uladh’, a 3 x 40 minutes landmark documentary series for BBCNI and TG4; Faire’, a60 minute factual documentary on the Irish Wake for TG4 and ‘Laochra Loch Lao’, a 2 x 30 minutes observational documentaries for BBC NI. Abú Media are the production company behind, ‘1916 Seachtar na Cásca’, the 7 x 50 min HD historical documentary series for TG4 mentioned above alongside ‘Na Crolly Dolls’, a 30 min documentary again for TG4 that looks back nostalgically at the old Crolly Doll culture in Ireland. The company are also currently in post production with four other Irish language series for transmission in January, namely ‘Garrai Glas’, a 13  x 30 min gardening / lifestyle series with Sile Nic Chonaonaigh; ‘Mobs Canada’, a 6 x 30 min historical doc series on Canadian / Irish Mobsters; ‘Na Feirmeoiri’, a 6 x 30 min Ob Doc on 3 small farmers whom we followed over 8 months – all of which are for TG4 - and ‘Bog Stop’, a 66 x 30 min Kids Quiz show for RTÉ.

It's a jam-packed schedule which reflects changes in the approach to Irish language programming in the last few years. BBC NI’s O’Donnaile tells us that a new move just over two years ago and the involvement of independent production companies has seen the quality of BBC NI’s Irish language programming improve greatly: “Two years ago the BBC saw a significant increase in its output - the BBC itself increased its funding of Irish language programmes from having quite an ad hoc approach to a commitment to spending about £1 million a year. This is then further augmented by the BAI and, significantly by the ILBF. We have a range of independent companies now and the sector is a very vibrant one. The skill levels are improving every year across the sector also and I think of it as a blossoming sector at the moment.”

Furthermore RTÉ’s Mairéad Ní Nuadháin tells us that one series in particular brought a new face of quality to the public station: “With Irish language programming – a few years ago people were of the opinion that you were restricted to just having factual programming,” she says, “but I think with programmes like ‘In the Name of the Fada’ you can have very good factual entertainment shows with Irish. It was a huge success and we’re still now looking for entertainment formats that make use of Irish.” She continues by telling us that the producers of Irish language programming in RTÉ “Don’t skimp on them – RTÉ invests will into Irish language programming.”

Imagine Media’s Sheila Friel further voices her support of Irish language productions, noting that: “Most programmes stand up comparatively well to similar English language output – any programme has to be of a high standard in order to compete.” Fellow producer Pierce is also adamant that the quality of the programmes being made as Gaeilge has risen greatly in the last few years: “You only have to look at the quality being produced by TG4 - the docs, the dramas and even Irish Language Feature Films. Of course it is better.”

So what do broadcasters need to do to keep Irish up to speed with a rapidly changing environment? Abu Media’s Pierce Boyce is of the opinion that Irish language output is still finding its feet: “I think, despite everything, we are all still finding our way in the online world,” he explains. “Deriving revenue streams from online content is hard and it has to work as a business model to reward all the work that goes in to it. I think the broadcasters are doing great stuff with their catch up / web player services but of course there is always room to improve…I just haven’t figured it out yet!”

Micheál is acutely aware of the need to make use of online applications and says it’s very much on TG4’s to-do list: “It’s the plan. We don’t currently have the computer technology to do that but we’re changing the whole in-house system in TG4 and we’ve a new digital asset management system going in whereby we’ll be broadcasting from a hard drive. So we’ll be done with tapes. So at that stage we’ll be able to introduce download services and we’re also currently looking into making use of Facebook.”

BBC NI has already embraced the partnering of Irish language programming and online technology – especially where one series in particular is concerned, as Antaine explains: “We have a new 24 x 5 minute series of shorts about GAA Sports called ‘Preab Suas’ from Waddell Media which will look to teach teenagers GAA Football skills through the medium of Irish. All the content is available to download onto the teenagers’ phones so they can literally bring the lessons onto the field with them and play along with the lesson.”

A question as to whether Irish language audience numbers are rising or falling gets a very mixed reaction. Sheila is of the opinion that figures are rising nationally: “There is certainly a growing audience for Irish language output in Northern Ireland,” she begins, “particularly from the flourishing urban gaeltacht within West Belfast.TG4 has also contributed massively to the national interest in Irish language broadcasting by carrying content which reflects the interests of its audience and being innovative and fresh in its commissioning.”

Fellow Northern Irish Gaelgoir, Antaine is also confident with regards to audience figures: “There is a clear demand for Irish language programming in Northern Ireland itself,” he says, giving the example that “10% of the population of Northern Ireland claimed in the last census to be comfortable with use of the Irish language - that alone shows support for the language. And also a lot of the BBC feedback we get shows approval for the output of Irish language programming.”

Moving in a southerly direction Maireád voices her delight at RTÉ’s Irish language audience track record: “We attract fantastic numbers,” she says. “We’ve really moved our programming from what was once seen as quite niche programming to a far more mainstream position. The last few weeks we’ve been running repeats of ‘Scannal’ and ‘CSÍ Fada’ and our scheduler Andrew Fitzpatrick took the unusual approach of broadcasting ‘CSÍ Fada’ at 7.00pm as opposed to the normal 7.30pm slot for Irish language programming and we got nearly 27% of the audience share for three weeks in a row which is incredible. And this shows the appetite people have for well told stories – in either English or Irish.”

Micheál comes across with a slightly different take on the current environment:There are more and more channels becoming available to Irish audiences,” he explains. “It’s a tough old battlefield and the old established channels are finding it hard - even RTÉ is getting a hit. Broadcasters must be different and keep re-inventing themselves and their schedule all the time. We have to be clever and almost aspire to be like Michael O’Leary in our approach, well, like Michael in that he knows how things work and knows how to get attention. We’d be nice guys though!”

At the other end of the scale Pierce is seeing audience numbers for all kinds of programming dropping drastically: “It’s obvious all stations viewing figures are dropping,” he says. ”And, it’s happening because people are moving away form traditional methods of consuming content. Plus we are experiencing a proliferation of digital channels. Gaming is also taking away a huge chunk of younger viewers up to age 25 so the challenge is to look to attract as many people as possible form a smaller and smaller demographic.”

On the topic of young people – should producers and broadcasters of Irish language programming be looking to give Irish a cool make-over? Again the responses are mixed – Pierce lauds TG4’s innovation, saying: “It’s a very competitive market and any promotion is hard won. I think TG4 have been very innovative in their campaigns for a few years now and we are very pleased with the approach they have taken to our last few productions like ‘Mobs Mhericea’, ‘Bothar  go dti an White House’, ‘Garrai Glas’ and now with the ‘1916 Seachtar na Cásca’ series.”

Micheál is of the opinion that young viewers respond strongly to role models -“It’s so important, especially with Irish language programming, to have role models,” he tells us emphatically. “It’s so important to have these young people who make it ok to speak Irish – who make it cool to do so. And when you have stunning individuals like Dearbhla Lennon promoting the language also, it can’t hurt!” On the other side of things RTÉ’s Ní Nuadháin thinks any attempts to make Irish cool are destined to fall flat, saying instead that such phenomena should happen by accident, if at all. She gives the example of their success with Des Bishop’s series ‘In the Name of the Fada’: “We never tried to tick any boxes in relation to being cool because Des brought that naturally. I mean, he had an audience at Electric Picnic singing along to ‘Léim Thart’ - his Irish version of House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’! One of the high points of my career was filming the end of that series where he performed his stand-up show, completely as gaeilge to a crowd of 1,500 people in Vicar St. It was amazing to watch.”

Is there any kind of programming that the broadcasters would like to see in order to further whet and maintain audience’s appetite? It would seem for Micheál,there is.  “The one thing I have not yet done is to record an Irish sit-com in front of a live audience,” he says.  “We’ve talked to a number of writers to write a comedy show and we’d love to record it in front of an audience then. For example, Joe Steve O’Neachtain from ‘Ros na Run’ is a fantastic comedy-drama writer – I’d love him to write a comedy series for us to perform in front of a Connemara audience. I’ve seen his plays performed in the Taibhdhearc and they’re a laugh a minute – so I’d love to get something like that on TG4!”

A very philosophical response to the same question comes from Antaine: “I’m looking forward to having a high level of quality across all the genres,” he says, of his goals. “We celebrated the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth on the station last year and his theory of evolution says that it’s not survival of the fittest or the strongest – it’s survival of those who can adapt. So, if the Irish language is prepared and able to adapt to new technology and new platforms, and if it’s able to engage with new audiences, then we’ll be ok and I think that’s the challenge for us.”

Do the independent producers think the broadcasters are doing enough to promote their Irish programmes? Pierce, though supportive of the broadcasters does comment that: “TG4 and RTÉ need to become more innovative with their programming – they should move away from the traditional ‘Irish Language’ style. TG4 have started doing this for years and it works really, really well and RTÉ’s new slant in recent years with programmes like ‘Scannall’ has also worked very well - but they have to ‘re-invent’. The key is to keep commissioning fresh ideas and maybe move commissions quicker to tap the national mood.” Sheila simply feels that broadcasters “Could do better” in this area.

On a final note both Micheál and Mairéad voiced their respective opinions that people looking to crack the media industry should embrace the Irish language as much as possible. Micheál pointed out that Irish can play a huge role in moving up the latter of Irish television production, saying: “What students mightn’t realise is that if their Irish is good they’ve a much better chance of making it in this industry because it allows for more opportunities – and of course once they’re commissioned they can move onwards and upwards.”

As if to illustrate this cycle Mairéad tells us that she is constantly on the lookout for good Irish language programming ideas to commission: “I’d like people to send me good ideas and then we’ll see what we can do with them,” she tells us. “People should keep in mind that a good chunk of the BAI’s Sound and Vision fund goes to Irish language programming. And the ILBF is another great source. We are currently looking also to commission a half hour slot for Christmas Day.”

Applicants are being asked to submit ideas for a one-off documentary which would fit well into the schedule on the day. Programme ideas with an Irish theme, Irish culture and strong storyline are welcome and there will be a maximum budget of €60,000. For more information click here: www.rte.ie/commissioning

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