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Time to call a halt to the lip service behind TG4 'success'

IS TG4 the best possible cultural value for money? The partly Irish-language station will be 10 years old on October 31 this year. But why do politicians keep sayingthat it is a "success"? What does that mean?

And why are three out of four terrestrial TV channels in the Republic still run by government appointees? Should the large sums spent on TG4 not be awarded independently to the best applicantinterested in providing sucha service?

This summer, TG4 was watched at any given time by fewer than three in every 100 TV viewers, down from its market share earlier in the year. Mind, it did have to compete with the World Cup. In July, its top 10 Irish-language programmes (including Celtic vs Man Utd) were watched on average by 53,000 viewers.

Yet TG4 receives around ?20 out of every ?100 of public money spent on television in the Republic of Ireland. Its total revenue in state funding will be about ?50m during 2006 - which compares to the Arts Council's annual budget of ?79m.

The most popular programmes on TG4 are sport and English-language series, especially commercial US programmes such as One Tree Hill, Without a Trace and The OC. Take away these and the average viewing figures for TG4 drop considerably.

TG4 is now looking for "a substantial increase in its level of funding" and the minister responsible for broadcasting, Noel Dempsey TD, has just promised to seek extra for it.

During the past decade, TG4 commissioned and screened many excellent programmes in Irish and English, as well as a lot of dross. Its bright and breezy brand has been a welcome addition to the airwaves, and the public money that it disburses creates employment in the audiovisual sector. It would be alarming if it did not.

But TG4 has always been something of a sacred cow. Vague assertions about its cultural purpose are seldom if ever tested. With the Government now announcing that TG4 is to be freed from RTE's control and established as aself-contained corporate entity, there should be a full debate about the station.

Most of TG4's money comes directly from the Minister for Finance, on a grace and favour basis each year. He will give it ?30m during 2006. This creates an unhealthy direct dependence on the state. What chance is there of a sustained and hard-hitting editorial agenda? There have been very few occasions when TG4 angered those with power in Irish society or was embroiled in controversy. This may not be coincidental.

And, in worse economic times, a Minister for Finance may be tempted not to cough up directly but to divert instead even more of the licence fee away from RTE to TG4 than it now receives. TG4 currently gets around ?10m worth of "free" programming annually from RTE. Indeed, TV3 already says that all public funding for TG4 should come from the licence fee. TV3 claims that direct state support from the Minister for Finance for TG4, its partly English-language competitor, is unfair and at present contrary to EU law.

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TG4 was five years on air before its objectives were even defined in law. And they were then defined only in a bland and functional way as being to commission and to provide "a comprehensive range of programmes, primarily in the Irish language".

So assertions that the station achieves wonderful things for the Irish language are not reflected in its mandate under the Broadcasting Act, 2001. And how could they be? How would one relate an increase in the status or usage of Irish to the screening of Irish-language programmes on TG4?

Minister Dempsey claimed this month that TG4 "has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 1996". What does that mean? Its audience has grown very little in absolute terms since the station was founded.

He also noted that "TG4 is considered one of the great success stories of Irish broadcasting". Popular success in broadcasting is very easily measured. Just check the Nielsen audience ratings that are the industry standard. When only three in every 100 people are watching a channel at any given time, and the cost per viewer in terms of public subsidy is much greater than in relation to other channels, then where exactly is the "great success"?

One "great success" of TG4 has been as a public relations exercise that allows us to believe that we are "doing something" about the Irish language. But there is no serious debate about whether or not we might "do something" more effective by spending the same amount of money on broadcasting in other ways. Does all that talent working for TG4 not deserve to reach a wider segment of the Irish public, in Irish and English?

IRELAND is a society in transition and we need well-funded and intelligent programmes about culture and the arts, and aboutissues that engage far more than three in every 100 viewers. Yet a substantial and often publicly employed Irish-language lobby dominates the debate about how money is spent on broadcasting for cultural purposes.

TG4 also enjoys special favour in relation to its profile within Northern Ireland, arising from the Good Friday Agreement. But how representative is TG4 and its content of the complex cultural reality that is the Republic as a whole, not to mention Northern Ireland?The creation of TG4 was partly driven by politicians with a direct geographical connection to where the station is located, most notably by Maire Geoghegan Quinn and Michael D Higgins when ministers. It is still being championed by Galway politicians such as Frank Fahey TD, Minister of Stateat the Department of Justice.Fahey claimed last year that TG4 "has been the best return on a Government investment, and has done more to forward the Irish language and people's attitude to the language than anything else." If viewer per euro of state funding is the measure of a return on investment, either one of RTE's channels is better value.

It may well be true that TG4 has improved "people's attitude to the language". The trendy brand image of TG4 appeals to people, including those who watch it only for sports or for programmes entirely in English. TG4 even includes its own English-language interviews on some voiced-over sports coverage from outside the state. It does not insist that commercial breaks be in Irish.

Many who say that TG4 is "great" rarely, if ever, watch its Irish-language programmes. They are like those who answer 'yes' to the simplistic census question on Irish just because they can remember a few Irish phrases from school and it feels unpatriotic to deny a national birthright. It is more of the tokenism that has marred Irish language policy since this state was founded, a triumph of assertion over reality.

Spending ?40m of public funds every year "to forward people's attitude" might be thought to require some kind of independent monitoring, so that we could measure any concrete results.

It may seem churlish to challenge the feel-good verbiage that surrounds TG4's 10th anniversary, but it is time for a serious Oireachtas debate on Irish cultures and broadcasting.

Prof Colum Kenny teaches broadcasting policy at DCU

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