Hill, Dick (1938–2010), television administrator and producer, was born Warnford Matthew De Courcy Hill in Cork city on 23 August 1938, the son of Richard Warnford Hill, bank manager, of Kinsale, Co. Cork, and his wife Olive (née McIlwaine). He was the only child of his father's second marriage, the first wife having died. His Church of Ireland father was from Cork city, his presbyterian mother from Armagh, but, despite lacking deep roots in west Cork, Hill identified strongly with the region, becoming expert in its history and topography. Known in his youth as De Courcy Hill and from the mid 1960s as Dick Hill, he attended the St Multose national school in Kinsale, and then boarded at Midleton College, Co. Cork. He described Midleton as 'Serious, strict, illiberal … There were beatings and thrashings, and clandestine buggery going on, all kinds of appalling things – yes, with the masters' (Southern Star, 14 June 1997). Although not sexually abused, he was psychologically scarred for years.
Finishing school, he worked for three years in the Goulding fertiliser company as a lab assistant in its Cork city plant. He attended night classes in industrial chemistry at the Sharman Crawford technical institute, and in 1959 won a TCD bursary. At Trinity, he took a BA in natural history (geology and social geography). He also grew more self-confident and liberal, and met Susan Buswell from Buckinghamshire, England, marrying her in 1965. After graduating in 1963 he worked in Kinsale as a market researcher for a German engineering firm.
Following a chance encounter with the RTÉ controller of programmes Gunnar Rugheimer (qv), Hill joined RTÉ in 1964 as a researcher for the Newsbeat programme, his responsibilities broadening to include scriptwriting, reporting, presenting, and ultimately becoming assistant editor to the host, Frank Hall (qv). Despite having a young family, in early 1966 he took a pay cut to train as a producer-director and was assigned in September to a new current affairs show, Seven days. He had earlier refused to join the Freemasons, then an informal jobs network for protestants, and his emerging social conscience further developed within the hothouse environment cultivated by the Seven days producer, Lelia Doolin.
Calmly methodical, yet sharing his colleagues' zeal for transforming Ireland through the medium of television, he complemented his co-director, the mercurial Eoghan Harris, who observed admiringly that, unlike most Irish protestants, Hill neither deferred to nor affected indifference towards the dominant catholic/nationalist ethos. Quickly emerging as RTÉ's most controversial and hard-hitting programme, Seven days alarmed the government with its investigations into planning corruption, one such exposé by Hill being terminated at the behest of the minister for local government, Kevin Boland (qv). When Seven days was moved into the more conservative news division in February 1968, Hill was one of several leading members of the Seven days team to transfer out in protest.
He continued as a producer, making economics programmes and documentaries on EEC countries. The most level-headed of RTÉ's young radicals, he was identified as management potential and sent on an Irish Management Institute course, acquiring a distressing fluency in the associated jargon. In 1969 he was made facilities manager, entailing responsibility for non-technical services such as stage props, production assistants and stage managers, duties that kept him busy when Ireland hosted the 1971 Eurovision song contest. It was also hoped that his affability would ease animosities between the producers and engineers. Gregarious and witty (without being caustic), he was invited to the most fashionable social events and lived in a picturesque quayside cottage at Dalkey with his wife and two sons.
Anxious to get back to producing, in 1971 he surprised himself by becoming head of features despite the efforts of his RTÉ enemies. After a period in which the programmes division had been marginalised, from 1973 RTÉ allowed its creative producers more leeway and began producing a new documentary every week, enabling Hill to enjoy the most fulfilling period of his career. Assembling a formidable team, he risked the management's censure by giving raw talent its head and excelled at shaping creative chaos. This position permitted time to attend to his various hobbies, including sailing, fishing, rebuilding vintage cars and writing short stories (some published); his ample frame testified to his love of fine dining.
Ambitious and self-promoting, Hill shed some of his radicalism and concealed his political views. In 1976 he was encouraged to apply for and receive promotion to the position of assistant controller of television with particular responsibility for current affairs. The government was engaged in one of its periodic clampdowns on RTÉ and he was immediately obliged to axe Seven days. His ensuing attempts to provide a current-affairs substitute were unsuccessful owing to ongoing political interference and ideological differences among the relevant staff. In late 1977 he was appointed controller of a second television channel created to offer regions beyond the reach of British transmissions with a comprehensive selection of British material.
Prior to the launch of RTÉ 2 in November 1978, Hill flamboyantly promoted the channel as a populist, youth-oriented alternative to RTÉ 1; 80 per cent of its output was imported and the home-produced shows were to have a non-Dublin emphasis. Critics praised his scheduling for mixing the highbrow, the lowbrow and the relatively risqué, but the ratings were poor and advertising revenues fell well below the required level. Viewers in the former single-channel area were unaccustomed to the particularities of British programming, while the policy of broadcasting British shows simultaneously with their transmission in Britain backfired, as Irish viewers with a choice overwhelmingly watched the British channels. Furthermore, the professional rivalry between Hill and the RTÉ 1 controller Muiris MacConghail meant that the two RTÉ stations competed against each other by concurrently broadcasting similar fare. Although the dropping of unpopular shows and a rise in home-produced content led to improved ratings, RTÉ 2 was increasingly denied resources and consigned to minority channel status.
The Fianna Fáil government's wariness of MacConghail, formerly press officer to the 1973–7 coalition government, led RTÉ to move him sideways in May 1980 while appointing Hill director of television and effectively controller of both channels. Conscious of the unrest so provoked in RTÉ, and concerned that the proposed new structures gave too much power to the administrators, Hill arranged a compromise whereby his role would be more that of a coordinator.
A popular and capable administrator, he was unfortunate to achieve high office during a period when a cash-strapped and overstaffed RTÉ was stricken by collapsing morale, mini-fiefdoms, ineffective financial controls and restrictive work practices. He recognised the need for action but was constantly fighting on behalf of programme makers against an interfering RTÉ Authority and against the administrators and engineers who dominated RTÉ's corporate decision-making; the engineer-driven obsession with achieving technical self-sufficiency denuded his programming budget. Further hindered by the internecine squabbles of RTÉ's small army of underworked producers, he also had to contend with MacConghail's re-emergence as a formidable adversary once Fianna Fáil lost power in late 1982.
As director of television, Hill first introduced more complementary scheduling between the two channels before concentrating diminishing resources on RTÉ 1 from 1982. Continuing the misguided policy of making prestige dramas, which cost too much and took too long to shoot, his recourse towards co-productions with foreign television companies saved money and skirted the normal union difficulties. But by 1985 domestic programming had shrunk to 30 per cent of output and ratings slumped from 1981 as RTÉ relied on low-grade imports to fill its schedule. Even the success of the new current affairs flagship, Today tonight, was marred by justifiable concerns of political bias. Meanwhile, Hill struggled to placate RTÉ's star chat-show host, Gay Byrne, who flirted with better-paid job offers from abroad, and agitated for more freedom to deal with controversial topics and for his Late late show to be moved to a Friday night.
Long considered a likely director general of RTÉ, Hill was shortlisted for the position in 1985 along with MacConghail, Vincent Finn and John Sorohan. Both Hill and MacConghail sank their personal differences in order to thwart Sorohan, who had rallied RTÉ's middle management against the creatives' preference for lavish co-productions, instead urging an emphasis on sport and domestic-focused programming. When the Fianna Fáil-appointed RTÉ Authority conducted the interview process in a manner that betrayed a politically driven partiality in favour of Sorohan, the coalition government intervened in March by imposing Finn as a compromise interim director general. Although Hill welcomed this, it was soon apparent that the government had lost confidence in the existing management and wanted RTÉ to sacrifice quality for the sake of economy and of more home productions.
Hill was among the many long-serving RTÉ staff that availed of the generous severance terms, resigning in January 1986 to become chief executive of the Cork Opera House. Having holidayed in west Cork at every opportunity, he settled there in Heron's Cove, Goleen, where his wife established an eatery and later a visitors' centre. The Cork Opera House, however, lost public funding and struggled through a prolonged recession. Hill secured a timely grant from Toyota in 1987, but ongoing financial difficulties forced him to close the venue for six weeks in summer 1989.
That autumn he resigned to devote more attention to Coco Television, a successful production company that he had founded in 1986 and which provided southern documentary material for RTÉ. This reflected RTÉ's new policy of contracting production out to former employees. When Coco Television decided to base itself in Dublin in the mid 1990s, he sold out and established another production company, Peripheral Vision, based in Skibbereen, Co. Cork.
In March 1997 he returned temporarily to Dublin after accepting a job from John McColgan, a friend, former RTÉ colleague and principal investor in a new commercial radio station, Radio Ireland. Hill's role as Radio Ireland's interim chief executive was to steady the ship after the acrimonious departure of his predecessor amid chaotic broadcast preparations. Once launched, Radio Ireland suffered from disastrous ratings, high staff turnover and internal divisions over whether to persevere with its quality remit or seek permission to develop a music-based format. The latter course was adopted in December when the station rebranded as Today FM. In early 1998 an illness necessitating a liver transplant forced Hill into retirement.
Latterly estranged from his wife, he lived with his partner, Jan Reid, in Rushbrooke, Cobh, Co. Cork. He died suddenly in Bon Secours Hospital, Cork city, on 1 January 2010 and was buried in Kinsale.