My early television childhood was located in a strange world, somewhere between Dublin, London, Belfast and Cardiff. The Irish television service was little more than 4 years old when I was born and RTE’s output was constrained by its limited resources. The service didn’t start until 5 or 6 most evenings except on Wednesdays when the Pink Panther started proceedings at the outlandish hour of 4:00!
To provide more choice our house was equipped with an enormous aerial. (Geek alert: it was a 5-element Yagi Band I monster pointing north for BBC from Divis and a (relatively) smaller multi-element Band III pointing east for HTV from Arfon in Wales, all in glorious 405-line monochrome.) This was a standard set up in Dublin and throughout the north and east of the Republic.
In the 70s cable TV reached most parts of Dublin so even people unwilling or unable to erect a mini Eiffel Tower on the roof of their house gained the exotic delights of BBC and ITV. In the 80s, Galway and Limerick were cabled and started to receive the Northern Ireland versions of BBC and ITV. (The Waterford and Cork systems initially relayed the Welsh versions). “Deflector” systems relayed UK to rural areas outside the reach of cable.
Up to the late 80s, the standard lineup was 6 stations: RTE1 and 2, BBC1 and 2, UTV (or HTV, occasionally both) and C4. With a relatively limited choice, every station got watched and BBC1 and UTV were particularly popular. Both stations were (and, to a lesser extent, still are) regional and the programming produced in Belfast reached a significant audience in the Republic.
During the dark days of the Troubles, when few people from the south ventured north of the border, this eavesdropping provided a window into life north of the border. On UTV, the Kelly Show was an alternative to The Late Late. Latterly Julian Simmons’ camp introductions to Coronation Street became something of cult across the island. During the late 80s and into the 90s, there was considerable discussion, in the Fay household at least, about whether Maurice Pratt from Quinnsworth and Jim McGaw from its northern sister brand Crazy Prices were actually the same person.
Where I was young, after the news on RTE, we changed over to BBC1 to get the end of Barry Cowan on Scene Around Six before “going Nationwide”. Sometimes we watched Good Evening Ulster on UTV with Gloria Hunniford. And of course we watched lots of networked ITV programmes which had regional adverts inserted by UTV. I can still hum the jingles for brands like Wellworth’s supermarkets and Valley Gold ingredients. Bread seem to be a popular topic for TV advertising and slogans like “Is the bread Ormo?”, and “Fred, we’ve no bread” were familiar in the schoolyard. There was also material very specific to Northern Ireland, which looked alien to a southern eye, like ads for the Confidential Telephone (years before the Garda implemented such a service) and those promoting the UDR.
This “eavesdropping” went both ways: by the late 70s most parts of Northern Ireland could view transmissions from the Republic with a regular outdoor aerial. The Good Friday Agreement contained provisions to increase the amount of Irish language programming available in Northern Ireland and as a result RTE1, RTE2 and TG4 are broadcast on Freeview from 3 transmitters in the North.
The expansion of the number of channels on cable and the advent of satellite hugely expanded the choice of viewing during the 90s and 00s. The easy availability of internet streamed content now means that people on both sides of the border watch programming without reference to physical geography.
Restrictions are now largely legal rather than geographical. An internet connection gets assigned an IP address which indicates the country of the user. You can use VPN services to pretend you are somewhere else but there is no room for the ambiguity of pointing an aerial across a border. If you connect to the Internet in Lifford you get a slightly different Netflix line up than a few metres away in Strabane. Viewers in the Republic can still get BBC content on their TVs and can record it. But if they miss the program then that’s it; access to the BBC iPlayer is restricted to internet users in the UK. That’s understandable: while Liberty Global/UPC/Virgin/Whatever-it-is-called-today pays the BBC a fee for content, it’s a lot less than the UK licence fee.
A side effect of all this extra choice, and extra barriers, is that most viewers in the Republic no longer see much content produced in Northern Ireland. As the political border became less obvious from the 1990s, a broadcasting border started to become more evident.
This broadcasting border became even harder in 2015 when UTV established UTV Ireland, with specific programming for a southern audience and aimed at picking up advertising revenue in the Republic. UPC ditched the “regular” UTV in favour of UTV Ireland and Sky changed their EPG so that “regular” UTV had to be manually tuned in. Julian Symonds thus disappeared off most TV screens south of the border. UTV Ireland quickly disappeared, becoming be3 and owned by Liberty Global/UPC/Virgin. But the old UTV was never put back on cable or Sky.
We still get the Northern Ireland versions of BBC, so viewers in the South can get their fix of Northern Ireland content. But you need to be alert. If you miss, say, Soft Border Patrol, the comedy mockumentary set in the near future on the Irish Border, then that’s it. You can get it on the iPlayer in Clacton, but not Clones. Which, in view of the premise of the show, seems rather appropriate.