29 January 2007
Dr Robert Savage, IASH Research Fellow
'A stranger among us': Edward Roth, America and the Origins of Irish Television
Ireland's national television service emerged in 1962 as a hybrid commercial public service in an attempt to merge the traditional Rethian philosophy with the free market dynamic represented by British and American commercial networks. The first director-general, Edward Roth, was an American who had extensive experience in commercial television in the United States. Importantly, he also had wide-ranging experience in working abroad and prior to coming to Ireland had been hired to organize television stations in Peru and Mexico. The importation of Roth and his American ideas to Ireland highlights the bias of this compromise with commerce. Roth was hired with the approval of Sean Lemass, on the advice of a search committee headed by an icon of British television, Eamonn Andrews. Andrews, perhaps the best-known Irishman in the United Kingdom, hosted one of the most popular television shows of his generation, What's My Line? He was also a successful businessman and entrepreneur who owned studios in Dublin and London. Like Lemass, Andrews was a modernizer who had little patience with those who believed television could 'save' Irish culture. Although the Lemass Government gestured towards accepting the need to uplift and educate the nation, in reality generating income to sustain the service was the priority.
Roth was an Irish-American Catholic, hired because of his technical and managerial expertise, and because of his ethnic and religious background. He arrived in Ireland in 1961 as a dynamic technocrat, fully equipped to oversee the physical establishment of a national television station but unaware of the complexities of Irish culture and politics. His term was a turbulent one as the American-made westerns and crime dramas he purchased proved tremendously popular with Irish audiences but also highly controversial. Many critics of the new station were horrified with what they perceived as a relentless diet of American programs and demanded that indigenous cultural and educational programmes be developed and broadcast. Debates about programming and the need to embrace and transmit authentic Irish material were an important part of the cultural discourse in these formative years of Irish television. This seminar will address the challenges that Roth confronted as Director-General in the early 1960s.