RTÉ is going to push away Ireland’s young talent without urgent reform

Ireland’s film and television industry is great – so why is RTÉ so painful?

Ireland teems with creative life, and has become a hub for the television and film industry in recent years, thanks to not only the hefty tax incentive to film here under Section 481, but the beautiful filming locations the country has to offer. On top of this, we have a number of highly rated vocational courses in film and television production with very clear cut career pathways in such a competitive field. In Dublin alone, IADT and TUD offer courses in media, broadcasting, and communications, with many others to be found in other reaches of the country. Trinity’s own Film Studies course also promises its students a hands-on approach to many aspects of production, with many students going on to build careers in the industry. In the wake of recent social movements such as Marriage Equality, Irish young people have been empowered by affecting real change, and are increasingly aware of societal injustices. This leads us to our very own public broadcasting institution – Raidio Teilifís Éireann.

“RTÉ remains archaic and represents a large portion of the ageing population in terms of outlook and approaches.”

 RTÉ is at the forefront of Ireland’s broadcasting institutions, picking up 42 of the top 50 most watched television shows in Ireland in 2019. Its programming succeeds at being homogenised and near-palatable (to some) for the most part, but that’s about as far as it goes. Following Ireland’s long history of censorship and parochial attitudes (take the banning of Monty Python’s Life of Brian in the eighties), RTÉ remains archaic and represents a large portion of the ageing population in terms of outlook and approaches. There have been plenty of instances during which RTÉ has been met with controversy for narrow mindedness and at times bizarrely tone deaf behaviour; on a more serious note we can look at how poorly the Repeal campaign was represented on Claire Byrne Live in 2018, but even recently RTÉ cut loose on a countdown program for New Year’s Eve. The sketch in question featured news anchor Aengus Mac Grionna in a fake Waterford Whispers news sketch about the immaculate conception, which suggested it was a rape, and called God a rapist. Naturally, public outrage ensued forcing RTÉ to apologise publicly for the offensive nature of the sketch – primarily because of backlash relating to the blasphemy incurred on the program.

 This highlighted RTÉ’s lack of cultural awareness for two reasons. Not only was the joke embarrassingly unfunny boomer humour, with the apology proving a meekness towards the Catholic church; it also glossed over the unpleasant nature of a rape joke on a public network. For a nation of waning religious faith among the younger population, RTÉ illustrated just how out of touch the network truly is with youth culture today. It’s quite clear that RTÉ’s staff are stuck in the last century – a brief skim on Glassdoor employee reviews confirms that outdated work culture and an uncreative environment is a common complaint among (presumably the few non-geriatric) staff.

“The most viewed show on the player has a frequent tendency to be Fair City according to the digital media reports of late, which suggests that Gen Z aren’t the ones tuning in.”

 Furthermore, RTÉ continually struggles to catch up with the technological shift to digital media, with the RTÉ Player having a deeply upsetting interface to the instant gratification generation. Their attempts to rebrand haven’t succeeded in crafting a basic video player that would have simpler programming than the YouTube video player in 2008. Regardless of this, the most viewed show on the player has a frequent tendency to be Fair City, which suggests that Gen Z aren’t the ones tuning in, looking to streaming services that promise something better than Ireland’s Fittest Family. No worries though, as the new universal broadcasting charge promises to fund RTÉ even if no one left in Ireland has a television. 

This isn’t to say RTÉ should be producing incredible high budget series, or would be capable of doing so. But the attempt to engage with youth culture falls very flat when watching Vogue Williams finding out about polygamy for the first time when Louis Theroux did it better at least 20 years ago. Not to mention Vogue Williams has been an RTÉ star since her stint on Fade Street, RTÉ’s heinous 2010 answer to The Hills, one of many exhibits of RTÉ’s tiring habit of recycling ageing TV stars. I’m not asking for much, but any evidence that RTÉ producers have a desire to engage young people in the national conversation that a public broadcaster should offer to its audience would be nice. 

A disconnect from youth culture is not something that has necessarily always plagued RTÉ. Mark Cagney, an ex-2FM and Ireland AM presenter who made his beginnings on pirate radio recently discussed his RTÉ radio show in conversation with Brendan O’Connor (ironically, on RTÉ). He highlighted the early days of having access to a huge library of music unlike anything before, something that only RTÉ could provide. In tandem with Gerry Ryan, they altered the scenery of Irish radio, giving voices to the younger people and showing awareness of what young people expect to experience. The migration of presenters like Mark Cagney, Dave Fanning and Ian Dempsey, from underground pirate radio to our national broadcaster shows a huge cultural shift of giving a platform to presenters that would have been previously less universally accessible. 

It would be wrong to suggest that RTÉ should become a vanguard of political reform or promote a bias towards certain ideologies, but cultural awareness is one of the most important things we should promote.  Even on Irish radio, 7 out of 10 of the mandated Irish musicians are men. The promotion of greater diversity would be an incredible thing for our national media. 

Young people deserve just as much of a say in what we broadcast, and deserve the same attention given to children and older age brackets.”

We live in a society where we constantly consume media, yet not all of it is not necessarily verifiable. In the words of Micheál Martin, “Modern media is under threat  from a whole range of forces, and I think the greater independence we can create around journalism and the media, the better.” Why is this not extending to the importance of our culture and representation within it? Why is RTÉ failing to modernise and retain a dialogue with young people? Young people deserve just as much of a say in what we broadcast, and deserve the same attention given to children and older age brackets. This should be prioritised to extend throughout RTÉ’s broad range of media. The facilities and funding are there to even create a media hub for young people that promises independence and public funding.

Without due reparations of this, I find it difficult to imagine a future where the brightest young creatives in our country would want to go into the public broadcasting industry. Ireland exports so much acting and production talent, and it’s obvious that our stories are important to the wider world – Normal People took the world by storm, Conversations with Friends has been snapped up, as has Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times. Ireland’s animation industry has also seen huge success. These stories have proven a relevance of Irish youth globally, perhaps sadly even more so than nationally. For a country that is so culturally rich, and with such a prominent generational gap, it seems about time that the voice of younger people is represented in our own public media – or failing that, just not insulted. 

Laura Galvin

Laura Galvin is the Deputy Comment Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of English Literature and Classical Civilisation.