20 years a-growing - but how secure is the future for TG4?
The Irish language station is seeking more public funds in order to break even. But is there an appetite to pour money into a niche network? Our reporter on the big challenges it faces
It is a question that Pádhraic Ó Ciardha has been asked many times: what has been TG4's biggest achievement? The station's deputy chief executive does not hesitate: "TG4 has led a change in attitude towards the Irish language," he says. "It is the most attractive, accessible and entertaining portal into the language since the foundation of the State.
"The content seems to strike a chord and people feel an affinity towards the language. It reacquaints us with the richness of our culture."
Next year, the country's only dedicated Irish language station will celebrate its 20th anniversary (it was called Teilifís na Gaeilge between 1996 and its relaunch in 1999) and while much has been achieved in those two decades, it continues to struggle to financially break even. Last week, Siún Ní Raghallaigh, chairperson of the TG4 board, called for more public money to be made available so it can continue to provide a mix of original drama, sports coverage and documentaries, as well as the judicious acquisitions of top international shows.
TG4 recorded a loss of €44,000 last year, according to its annual report. And that was despite a 10pc rise in commercial revenues to €3.4m. The vast bulk of its funding comes from the exchequer, which contributed some €32m in 2013.
"We are working with very constrained budgets," Ó Ciardha says. "We have only a fraction of the money other broadcasters have so we have to use it as wisely as possible."
Comparatively straitened finances have ensured that TG4 has had to think outside the box and live up to its long-running marketing strap-line: Súil Eile (another view/perspective). It won acclaim as the first Irish broadcaster to acquire such future television classics as Breaking Bad and much of its original drama has been enthusiastically endorsed by the critics, including Grá Mo Chroí, a feature film financed by the station and broadcast last year.
TG4's recently unveiled autumn season is spearheaded by An Klondike, a four-part drama centred on a trio of Irish brothers desperate to make a fortune in the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s. Made for €1.2m, with rugged rural Donegal standing in for north-western Canada, it is being praised for its superior production values and vaunting ambition.
"Quality drama is the calling card of public-service broadcasting," Ó Ciardha says, "and we've tried to do that in recent years with An Bronntanas and Corp + Anam, and now An Klondike."
An Bronntanas, which appeared to tap into the vogue for noirish crime dramas popularised by Scandinavian broadcasters, enjoyed very favourable reviews from critics, including those who appear to have the knives out for RTÉ's offerings every week.
Yet, despite the hype, it failed to connect with a large audience. It averaged around 50,000 viewers per episode, while the less acclaimed Charlie, pulled in 850,000 for RTÉ. Pádhraic Ó Ciardha defends its performance and points out that many of the crime series that were media darlings were shown on BBC Four "and watched by about 1pc of the audience".
Harry Browne, a media lecturer at the School of Journalism, DIT, believes TG4 has been "a qualified success" in the two decades it's been on air. "They have tried to do a diverse mix of programmes, and unusual bought-in stuff," he says. "There have been programmes on marginalised communities and some well-received drama. That's to be celebrated, especially when you consider that they're on a shoestring budget."
Browne argues that it may be in years to come when we realise the important role that the station has played in preserving aspects of Irish culture.
"I think in 20 years time we will look back on it and see that so many aspects of Irish life have been recorded by TG4 - aspects that aren't really covered by the other channels."
It's a view echoed by PR consultant Natasha Fennell, a native Irish speaker whose firm Stillwater Communications conducts much of its business as Gaeilge.
"They've looked at Irish life in ways that nobody else has," she says, "and some of their documentary-making has been first class. I think Imeall, presented by Tristan Rosenstock, is the best arts show on television in Ireland."
But she has misgivings. "It doesn't have a landmark show; it's version of the Late Late, appointment television... call it what you will. I speak Irish every day and yet I flick through TG4 and much of it just doesn't grab me. On the whole, though, I think they do a good job and they are held in high esteem by many."
Despite her guarded enthusiasm for the station, Fennell has had her fill of people talking about how TG4 has made the Irish language sexy. "It's such a cliché," she says, "and I'm sick of it. Yes, you have attractive presenters on TG4 and they've been there since the start, but Irish is a living, breathing language irrespective of what the station is doing. I think what it's helped bring about is an affection for the language that wasn't necessarily there before."
Michael Cullen, editor of Marketing magazine, says the ad industry recognises it as "a strong niche channel" and notes that its ability to market itself has been exemplary over the years.
"They've won bagfuls of marketing awards, and deservedly so," he says. "There's real creativity there and they've managed to position themselves as a minority language station that has appeal to the wider populace too. That's no mean feat."
Cullen notes that when it comes to ad spend, some of the more progressive agencies and brands will "throw a few bob at it" because they recognise that while TG4 can't compete with RTE and TV3 for audiences, it does have a very distinct identity. "And brands like that," he adds, "it's not just about the Irish language, it's about Irish culture and way of life too.
"I'm no Gaeilgeoir - I'd only have school-Irish - but I often find myself coming across one of their documentaries and staying with it. There was a programme presented by Dáithí Ó Sé a couple of weeks back, and featured Michael McDowell, and it was really good. Very high production values, and really well made."
The series in question, Fuaimrian Mo Shaoil (Soundtrack of My Life), features the Rose of Tralee host talking to a host of celebrities in what's ostensibly TG4's answer to Desert Island Discs. It's one of several new programmes in the autumn schedule and executives at the station's HQ in Baile na hAbhainn, Connemara, will be hoping that a youth dating show, Pioc do Ride, will pull in healthy figures in the 15-24 age group.
Pádhraic Ó Ciardha says one of TG4's biggest successes has been its connection with young people, especially those of school-going age. Its standalone station, Cula 4, delivers eight hours of children's programming per day: its remit includes a three-hour block in the morning for pre-schoolers; an afternoon segment aimed at primary school kids, which includes such American heavyweights as SpongeBob SquarePants, which is dubbed into Irish; and, an early evening tranche for secondary school pupils boasting such homegrown offerings as Aifric.
The station also has a good track record when it comes to sport, especially hitherto rarely broadcast competitions in under-age GAA, camogie and ladies' Gaelic football. The broadcaster will show live coverage of the Ladies Football Final between Dublin and reigning champions Cork tomorrow.
RTE, meanwhile, unveiled a four-year plan at the beginning of the month to improve its Irish language programming, especially on radio. Among its initiatives was an option for Saorview subscribers to hear last Sunday's All-Ireland Football Final as Gaeilge, and bilingual news bulletins on 2fm.
"We're looking to increase the amount of Irish on RTÉ's television and radio services and, through partnerships, provide more educational output, as well as building Irish-language capacity across RTÉ," said Rónán Mac Con Iomaire, RTÉ group head of Irish Language, at the launch.
The initiative is part of a Government 20-year strategy on the Irish language, and it remains to be seen what impact it will have on TG4's attractiveness when it comes to public funding.
"There's no clamour out there for taxpayers' money to be used elsewhere," says an Irish-language advocate who does not wish to be named, "and that might just be because even those who grew up hating the language don't feel hostility to it any more and much of that is down to the entertaining, innovative way they've gone about making Irish language programming.
"It's quite an achievement to deliver television that can work for native speakers and those who have limited comprehension. It's far from perfect, and sometimes it feels as though it believes its own hype a little too much, but Ireland would be a far poorer place without it.
"And even those who suffered through Peig at school would probably agree with me."
TG4's successes and failures
Ros na Rún: The Galway-set soap is in its 20th year and has covered everything from arson to paedophilia. Aired twice a week for 35 weeks of the year, it's the biggest independent production in Irish broadcasting history. Stephen Fry made a cameo appearance in 2011.
Ó Tholg go Tolg: A travel show with a difference - its title translates as 'From Couch to Couch' - it has featured three different pairs of female presenters slumming it from country to country. Its success (or not) as largely depended on the likeability of said presenters.
Corp + Anam: A gritty series with high production values that has run over two series, it follows the exploits of a TV crime correspondent who finds himself being sucked into danger.
Crisis Eile: TG4 are good at hard-hitting dramas, less so at comedy. This effort featured RTÉ star Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh as a fictitious EU commissioner Maeve Kelly Clarke, but laughs were decidedly thin on the ground.