Analysis: The station's decision to film the 1971 Eurovision in colour led to programme cutbacks and cancellations

By Morgan Wait, TCD

I’ve heard the line 'sure, we can’t send anyone good to the Eurovision, we can’t afford to win!' at least 1,000 times since I moved to Ireland. This has been used to explain both Jedward and Dustin the Turkey to me. As Jedward have proven themselves to be adept advocates for social justice in recent years, and "Lipstick", to be fair, should have won, I don't need much more explanation there. I do, however, still have some questions about Dustin...

As we ramp up for the contest this year, and weigh Ireland’s prospects against the other entries, I’ve been thinking a lot about the old joke. As a television historian, I have been thinking a lot too about the time when the cost of the Eurovision nearly did sink RTE´.

The year was 1971. Dana's "All Kinds of Everything" had won the 1970 contest and RTÉ was readying itself to hold the following year's contest in Dublin. Dana’s song was Ireland’s first winner in the contest’s then 14 year history. She thus became the pride of the nation for whom nothing was too extravagant. Aer Lingus even procured a special dispensation from the British government for her to fly into Ballykelly airfield on a private 747 so that she could make it home to her native Derry the night after her win.

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From RTÉ Archives, Dana returns to Ireland after winning the 1970 Eurovision

As the Irish victory was a very big deal, RTE´ was dead set on holding a contest that would adequately represent Ireland. The only issue was that RTE´’s budget was not as large as that of previous contest winners. The station was already struggling financially due to falling advertising revenue, increased radio hours and increased payroll expenses. In order to hold a successful contest, RTE´ needed to make cuts elsewhere and this did not amount simply to cutting a few corners. It meant that the station spent a huge proportion of its yearly budget on the contest to the tune of £250,000.

A full £200,000 of that expenditure went towards acquiring colour broadcasting equipment a year earlier than the station had planned so that they could film the Eurovision in colour. Irish viewers were late adopters of colour television as the new sets were more expensive. In 1971, only about 1% of Irish viewers had colour sets, but the take-up was much higher in the rest of Europe so RTE´ felt obligated to take on the excessive cost of filming the contest in colour.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News reports on preparations at Dublin's Gaiety Theatre ahead of the 1971 Eurovision, the first time the competition was held in Ireland

The cost of the contest led to cuts in nearly every department and a cavalcade of programme cancellations. Big budget expenditures like soap operas were the first to go. The station left their long running rural soap The Riordans in place, but the short lived Southside, set in a Cork suburb, was cancelled after its second season despite being at the top of the ratings throughout its run. The station also cancelled a programme called The 70s Scene, a women's programme featuring celebrity chef Monica Sheridan. In the previous eight years of its existence, RTE´ had always carried an Irish women’s show of some sort, but they replaced this with the much cheaper import The Galloping Gourmet for 1971.

RTE´ had always relied quite heavily on imported programmes, with about 50% of programming imported throughout the 1960s, but the Eurovision crisis exacerbated the problem. Between 1969 and 1971 native content dropped by 6%. By 1973 the situation had become so severe that one UNESCO study stated "only Iceland depended more on television imports than Ireland" in western Europe.

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From RTÉ Archives, report on the 1971 Eurovision Song Contest

The situation incensed workers at RTE´ who felt that the station had prioritised the contest over quality programming and jobs. In response, members of the station’s ‘Anti-Redundancy Committee’ descended on the Gaiety Theatre where the Eurovision contest was being held to picket the proceedings. While there, they booed at and jeered delegates as they entered the theatre and ‘heckled’ members of the RTE´ Authority.

In a statement to the press the following day, they openly attacked RTE´ for their participation in what they called the "vulgarity of that musical non-event". They pointed out that the choice to air the contest in colour resulted in a situation where ‘1,500 employees are now equipped to broadcast colour to exactly twice their number ... But no money remains for home-produced programmes in colour or in black and white’. The picketers, including a young Eoghan Harris, were swiftly suspended from their jobs for ‘unprofessional conduct’.

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1971 Eurovision winner Séverine performs "Un banc, un arbre, une rue"

Quick action by RTE´'s unions and the threat of a strike resulted in the reinstatement of the picketers about two weeks later. But the budget crisis, and reliance on imported programming, continued on for much of the 1970s.

However, the nation’s efforts and the Irish station’s worsening financial situation may have been worth it after all. The Eurovision Contest of 1971 was declared a resounding success. One RTE´ employee who traveled to Germany soon after the contest reported that impressions there, on the whole, could be summed up to the effect that ‘Ireland is a place where the Protestants and Catholics stopped fighting long enough to put out a very successful Eurovision Song Contest.’

Morgan Wait is a PhD candidate at TCD studying the history of women and television in Ireland during the 1960s.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ