A Screen-Shaped Window 

1 January 2003 tbs.pm/1879

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For those of us who share a profound and active interest in all aspects of television broadcasting, the opportunity to take part in a television series analysing the impact and consequences the most important and influential mass medium has cultivated among society since its inception is a fantasy many people aspire to but doubt they could ever fulfil.

With good fortune, I was chosen to participate in a project that allowed me to realise that opportunity.

The year 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of television broadcasting in Northern Ireland. The opening of the Province’s first transmitter at Divis in May 1953 came a month ahead of the event that embedded the importance of television as a component of domestic life, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, allowing the BBC a lucrative position to introduce viewers in Northern Ireland to the wonders of the medium of television; as witnesses to a event of immense national, and empirical, importance.

From those fledgling seeds grew a distinctive form of television that aimed to entertain, inform and educate a local audience enduring an experience that oscillated from trivial to staid, from paranoia to intolerance, and from optimism to cynicism.

To celebrate this landmark anniversary, BBC Northern Ireland commissioned, in-house, a six-part series, Window on the World. The ethos of the series was a nostalgic study of significant moments in the evolution of regional broadcasting, through the experiences of those directly involved in producing the material, and the experiences of some of the viewers at home.

The series spanned retrospectives on the entertainment output of BBC Northern Ireland and Ulster Television, both stations’ approaches to news reporting and documenting of the ongoing history of Northern Ireland, and fond recollections of the nation’s finest sporting achievements.

The relevant material from the archives of BBC Northern Ireland, UTV and RTÉ illustrated key moments of local televisual history, supplemented by running commentaries from various participants on how the material helped shaped their memories of, and reactions to, local television.

Among the roster of participants whose involvement in the six-part series included presenters and journalists from both the BBC and UTV, lecturers from the Media Studies department at the University of Ulster, and members of the public.

In order to reflect as diverse an experience as possible, the BBC sought to select members of the public as potential contributors to the programme spanning all generations; people who could recall the sense of awe and trepidation felt when the family’s first television set was installed in their living room; people who ardently followed the development of regional broadcasting; and people whose attitudes to television, and its impact, no doubt differ from those of previous and future generations.

My participation in the programme came about after the programme’s researcher discovered my own website, focusing on the history of Ulster Television. Following interviews with the researcher, and later with the producer and executive producer of the series, discussing the format of the series and ascertaining my personal memories and definitions of Northern Irish television, I was invited to record a piece for the programme at Studio 1, in BBC Broadcasting House, Belfast on 8th October 2002.

As I sat in the reception area of Broadcasting House waiting to record my piece for Window on the World, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment to be involved in the project; that I had received an opportunity to partake in what was a series of documentaries telling the story of how television became a central point in the nation’s homes.

Although at times, I was worried that my contributions, often inspired by principles of media theory, could conflict too much with the programme’s ethos – an exploration of the nostalgic via the collective memory – but when it came to recording my interview, which took in total around 90 minutes covering a vast array of television genres, I was able to recount my personal experiences of watching television in my life with cordiality and precision.

By the time the series eventually went to air in February 2003, I began to feel anxious about whether snippets from my interview would survive the rushes, and how my comments would be portrayed within the programme’s flow.

Would I come across as a viewer whose passion and interest in the subject strike a chord with the audience, or would I come across as an anorak who ought to enhance his social life?

Sitting down to watch the first programme with my parents, the butterflies persisted – and when I suddenly appeared discussing local entertainment series Kelly and PK Tonight, my worries were quashed, initially by embarrassment at seeing my face appear on screen, and then a reprisal of the excitement I felt when being interviewed in front of the camera four months previously.

I also had to convince my parents that my comments were a natural response to the executive producer’s questions, and what I said in the programme did not rely on a script or watching the programme on a studio monitor, an accusation that some “talking heads” have been labelled with at other times.

Since then, various family members and friends have reacted positively to my contribution to Window on the World, vindicating the reasons why I became involved with the series in the first place – to share my experience of growing up with television in Northern Ireland, and how my experience has informed and moulded my own perspectives.

The legacy of television in Northern Ireland has, over its first 50 years, allowed its viewers a unique and multi-faceted window on the world outside, from local streets to distant civilisations, and will, indisputably maintain that position as a window on the world for another 50 years.

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