Bust-Boom-Bust: Fifty years of RTÉ archives

As RTÉ adds more video footage to its online archives as part of its fiftieth anniversary, Robert Dunne examines the background of the archives and their appeal to the nationThe fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of Raidió Teilifís proves that after half a century Irish broadcasting is, in many ways, still in its infancy. As part of RTÉ’s semi-centennial celebration they will add to the current online archives on their website to provide an enhanced insight into events that have shaped Irish society, and to depict how the lives of Irish people have changed throughout the fifty years of the station’s existence. The availability of this archive is just one of the initiatives launched by RTÉ as part of its TV50 campaign, which encompasses a year-long celebration of fifty years of RTÉ that commenced on New Year’s Eve.RTÉ currently has an archive section on their website that contains extensive footage and radio clips of notable events over the last fifty years. It is not clear as to whether this section will be enhanced in a way that users will be able to access material based on the year it was filmed or whether it will be divided into further categories of sport, news or Late Late Show episodes. This may depend on the volume of material RTÉ intends to issue to the archives. One of the most valuable features of the enhanced archive access will be the addition of a TV50 classics player, which will be launched in spring of 2012. The classics player will be available on the RTÉ website and will operate using the same format as the existing RTÉ player, allowing users to access some of the great moments in drama, sport and news in Ireland over the last fifty years.TV license payers may be wondering why this facility was not made available to them by the state broadcaster many years ago. The simple truth is that RTÉ only began a scheme of digitising material in the mid 1990’s and this is set to continue for at least another decade. Up until now, viewers could only get access to RTÉ archives through the limited amount of footage placed on their website and through programmes such as Reeling in the Years, Léargas and Arts Lives. The majority of the material in RTÉ’s archives was captured on large open reels using analogue technology, usually magnetic tape. The drawback of analogue recording is that large amounts of space are needed to store the old reels and the quality of the footage on the reel deteriorates quickly over time. Converting the existing archives to digital format ensures that the quality of the footage will not deteriorate any further over time and allows the archives to be shared with the public in an online environment.Many viewers will be excited by the prospect of trawling the classics player for news broadcasts and episodes of the Late Late Show in the hope of spotting a relative on the news or a son or daughter’s claim to fame on the Late Late Toy Show. The reality of the situation is that a large amount of reels were wiped in the early years of RTÉ in order to facilitate the recording of new programmes; production budgets were small and it was too costly to use new reels every time. This has, unfortunately, resulted in various pieces of footage being lost forever. Luckily material now produced by RTÉ is stored in digital format and catalogued so that future generations will be able to look back on high quality footage depicting the trials and tribulations of twenty-first century Ireland.The release of RTÉ’s archives fits in with the current trend of nostalgia featured in Irish media and film in recent years. Many people are yearning to bask in the glory of times gone by; evidence of this is the success of Reeling in the Years and its DVD. There is no doubt that many people will use the TV50 classics archive to relive childhood memories of Bosco and The Den and watch famous events that RTÉ news covered over the years, but what about the even younger generation? It is hard to see many students of today ditching their usual helping of television to watch programmes documenting decades gone by. Those that do watch may mostly get a kick out of the dodgy hairstyles and fashion disasters. Many will be surprised to see how vastly Ireland has changed and advanced since fifty years ago, when the country was reliant on an agricultural economy pre-EEC membership. “Tied to the tail of a cow” is an understatement. At the very least, the RTÉ archive will bring an increased awareness of the past to younger generations and it will also provide a laugh or two along the way.