Memories of the past, ideas for the future

TV: from luxury item to an essential

Dr Gareth Ivory is the Manager of RTÉ’s Audience Research Department and a Director (on behalf of RTÉ) of TAM Ireland, the company that manages the television audience measurement contract on behalf of broadcasters and advertisers in Ireland.

The ratings system provided to the Irish media industry by Nielsen TAM reports on daily viewing levels to about 30 channels, as well as providing monthly data about more than 200 other stations available across a variety of distribution platforms. The proliferation of the likes of integrated digital TVs, set-top boxes with enhanced functions, and tablet computers confirms that Irish people are fully embracing the digital revolution. But was it always so?

While there were some early adopters of television along the east coast before RTÉ’s first broadcast on New Year’s Eve 1961, prior to that, those who bought a TV set in order to watch BBC or Ulster Television were in a very small minority. For most of the 2.7 million or so people living in the Republic of Ireland in 1961, the radio (or wireless as it was still called), cinema and various print publications were the media of choice.

It was a very different country at that time and any technology being adopted by Irish people was far more likely to be modern domestic appliances such as fridges, electric cookers, twin-tub washing machines, tumble dryers and vacuum cleaners. Acquiring these goods that could ease the drudgery of daily household chores held out the prospect of more leisure time. A TV set was still regarded by many as a luxury item and below more pressing household purchases. Other options, such as hire purchase or TV rentals, were often preferred.

In the early years, RTÉ’s Annual Report provided estimates on the proportion of houses with a television. The uptake of this ‘new’ technology was more gradual than many may realise at this remove. By 1964, while 91% of Irish households had a radio, just 44% had a television set. Many of these homes were clearly early adopters living in urban centres. Six years later it was estimated that 70% of private households had a set, accounting for 79% of the population.

An urban/rural divide was still very evident: 84% of households in towns and cities in 1970 had a TV while only 57% of rural homes did. Four years later, the national percentage had risen to 79% of homes and by 1984 it was 91%, equating to 94% of the populace. The conversion from black & white sets to colour was similarly gradual. Between 1974 and 1984 the percentage of homes equipped with a colour TV set rose from 11% to 74%.

Data has been collected since 1988 estimating the number of homes that have more than one television set. In that year, just 16% of households had more than one set. By 1998, this percentage had increased to 43%. The current estimate is 53% of TV homes.

Basic TV equipment was in most Irish households by the early 1980s. Technological innovations allowed some accessorizing during that decade as video cassette recorders (VCR) and remote controls (with basic functions) became more commonplace. In 1984, just 8% of Irish households had a VCR while 10% had a remote. Ten years later, these figures had increased to 59% and 73% respectively.

Quite apart from technological innovation, the size of the average Irish household has changed dramatically since the birth of RTÉ Television. While on average four people lived in every home in 1961, this has fallen to just 2.5, according to the 2011 census. Moreover, the total number of private households has more than doubled from 675,000 in 1961 to around 1,636,000 now.

Since the millennium the penetration of digital technologies has increased dramatically. Between 2002 and 2005 ownership of DVD players more than tripled, from 18% to 62%. It peaked at 80% in 2008-2009, while the current estimate of 75% suggests that the perceived need for DVD players is waning. That may be due in part to the dramatic rise in PVRs [such as those in Sky and UPC digital set-top boxes], from 3% of Irish households nationally in 2005 to 42% currently. Significantly, of the three in every four homes that have digital reception, more than half have a PVR.

Since the 1980s, the capacity of broadcasters, network operators and technology manufacturers to offer audiences a range of possibilities that allows them to personalise their viewing experience has expanded rapidly. The coming years will likely see further growth in time-shift viewing and video-on-demand (VOD) services, and an increase in the consumption of broadcast content on mobile devices, including smart phones, laptops and tablets. New opportunities to view will abound and broadcasters are in the business of being available wherever and whenever audiences want them.

The future for television continues to shine brightly as we move into the second 50 years of Irish television and traditional viewing exists side-by-side with these technological developments. Notwithstanding the proliferation of technology over the past two decades, audience measurement data shows that individuals continue to watch on average just over three hours of live television per day. Just like in 1991. Apart from a small spike in 1998, time spent watching television gradually fell during the 90s from an average of three hours, 15 minutes to just below three hours in 2001. Since then it has been slowly creeping back up again.

Many people would like to know the most successful programme of all time. Unfortunately, no electronic dataset exists to allow for a direct comparison across all programmes broadcast in the Republic of Ireland since 1962. An added complication is that until 1989 viewing levels were reported at the level of Homes rather than Individuals (aged 4+), as is current practice.

However, I can say that the most viewed programme since 1989 was when Ireland drew 0-0 with Norway at Giants Stadium on 28th June 1994 to qualify for the knock-out stages of the World Cup Finals in the United States. On that day an estimated 1,716,000 viewers watched the entire match on their TV sets at home. And many more were watching in pubs, hotels and clubs.

To see the February 1962 statement RTÉ released to announce the start of television audience measurement by TAM Ireland, click here.