by Sarah Donoghue
We here at Oxygen.ie and the SMEDIA Awards 2024 are very happy to announce RTÉ as one of the sponsors of this year’s competition categories!
From humble beginnings to dizzying heights – RTÉ has been servicing the people of Ireland for almost a century. Radió Teilifís Éireann has produced radio, television, films, documentaries, online content, and is a sponsor of the 2024 Student Media Awards, The SMEDIAs. A public service broadcaster is a media company which receives state funding, and the government has some control over the content or can set regulations, RTÉ has become one of the world’s oldest continuously operating public service broadcasters.
Today, it has 4 TV channels, 10 radio stations, and has accounts across all social media platforms – but it wasn’t always like that. RTÉ was launched, under the name 2FN, in 1926, almost 98 years ago. However, back then it was only a radio station. The first broadcast was done by Douglas Hyde, who went on to be the president of Ireland from 1938 to 1945. Just 20 months later, in September 1927, the television was introduced to the world. Despite this, RTÉ didn’t start producing TV until the 1960s. So, what did TV in Ireland look like in the 1900s?
The TV was invented by Philo Taylor Farnsworth, he debuted it to the public in San Francisco in 1927 but for the first nine years it was very uncommon to see a TV anywhere, most of them were in research labs. Broadcasts were few and far between, many of which were just experiments. Many channels would sparsely air content because they wanted to be the ahead of the game but didn’t want to invest a lot into a new technology that wasn’t very popular yet. The BBC was one of these, they began experimenting with broadcasting on TV in August 1932.
This all changed in summer 1936, during the Berlin Olympics. These Olympics were televised across the world, marking the first ever major televised event in history. Telefunken, a German company, handled all the filming and broadcasting. With that, the TV began to grow in popularity. Later that year, in November, the British government decided to cease the momentum the Berlin Olympics had created and set up the BBC. The BBC became the world’s first ever public TV station to air regular programmes.
Even though some people in the UK could watch TV from as early as 1932, no TV programme was ever transmitted in or to Ireland until 1949. In 1949, the BBC set up some high-power transmitters near Birmingham and West Yorkshire. The transmitters were powerful enough that they reached some places on the East Coast of Ireland. This was the first TV transmission to Ireland.
The east coast remained the only place in Ireland where you could watch TV for 4 years. In 1953, the British Government decided to bring TV to Northern Ireland. They set up BBC Northern Ireland and built more high power transmitters, in Northern Ireland this time. This meant that some people in the Republic of Ireland who lived in Ulster, northern Leinster and northern Connacht could get the signal to watch TV.
In 1959, the BBC relinquished its monopoly on TV in Ireland when ITV also moved Northern Ireland, setting up UTV and, of course, more transmitters. At this point, 60% of people in Ireland were receiving British TV from the transmitters up north.
The Irish government was becoming increasingly worried about the influence British TV was having over the population. So, the government established the Television Commision and started preparing for Radió Éireann to become Radió Teilifís Éireann.
Teilifís Eireann officially was launched on the evening of Sunday, December 31st, 1961. So, what was it like watching RTÉ back then? The evening kicked off with a speech from president at the time Eamon DeValera. The Toaiseach, Sean LeMass, and the minister for posts and telegraphs (the department that handled RTÉ) address the audience too. Then the Archbishop of Dublin led prayers called the Benediction of the blessed sacrament from the church that was at the RTÉ studios. Then there was a reading of two poems, one by Padraig Pearse and the other by W.B. Yates.
The programmes continued in this vein for the rest of the night. There was an hour dedicated to music and dance, there was a show about the preparation for Teilifís Éireann and another called “Meet the People” where the presenters went down the country and into the homes of people who would be watching the opening night. And, of course, the news.
RTÉ did not manage to really find its footing with TV shows until summer 1962 when they launched the Late Late show with Gay Byrne. Throughout the rest of the decade, most of the programming was nonfiction. Educational shows, talk shows and current affairs were the staple of the network. However, ‘Wanderly Wagon’ the famous kids show began airing in 1967.
In the 70s, RTÉ ventured more into fiction TV. Although, the political situation in Northern Ireland was worsening with the troubles so the news still took up the majority of broadcast time. In the early 1970s, RTÉ ventured into satire with ‘Hall’s Pictorial Weekly’ and sketch comedy with ‘If the Cap Fits’. Another childrens series ‘Bosco’ started, and the Late Late Toy Show officially began in 1975. Towards the end of the decade, they dipped their toe into drama series launching two shows called ‘Bracken’ and ‘The Spike’.
The TV shows remained very similar in the 80s, but this decade came with a lot of technical advances. High-definition TV finally came to Europe and video replaced film. RTÉ got new bulletins. Teletext was introduced. And RTÉ debuted a new logo which was hated by the public. RTÉ also tried their hand at sitcoms and game shows during this time. Ireland also won the Eurovision twice, meaning RTÉ got to host it the next year. ‘Fair City’ began in 1989.
In the 90s, RTÉ began providing online content due to the growing popularity of computers. This was the Celtic tiger so there was loads of room for innovation and trying new things. Some of RTÉ’s most famous shows, ‘Winning Streak’, ‘Prime Time’, and ‘Reeling in the Years’ began in the 90s. Ireland also managed to win the Eurovision 4 more times in this decade.