Saturday 10 December 2016

TV times: How Dee Forbes plans to make RTE ready for the future of broadcasting

New RTE director-general Dee Forbes says the organisation will be very different in five years' time

Published 30/10/2016 | 18:00

New RTE director- general Dee Forbes
New RTE director- general Dee Forbes

Dee Forbes has made some very noticeable changes to the director-general's office in RTE.

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In place of the old school, brown wooden desk, she has opted for a standing desk. It's the type of office furniture more commonly seen in the trendy tech firms around Dublin's Silicon Docks. But Forbes clearly likes to be on her feet.

Just three months in the job, she has spent much of her time getting to know RTE first-hand.

"It's important I get a sense of it for myself," she says. "I really believe in knowing the temperature in an organisation. It doesn't matter how many good people you have around you, I personally want to feel that for myself."

The former head of Discovery Networks in Northern Europe came from left-field when her appointment was announced last summer. A highly-regarded television executive, there had been little to suggest she would be lured back to Ireland.

However, she has long been intrigued by RTE, despite working in London for 26 years. For Forbes, the DG job was an exciting and challenging opportunity at a time of immense change.

"I came into a strong RTE - strong output and very good people - but also an RTE that is part of this media world where, quite honestly, we are all trying to grapple with what the future might look like," says Forbes, who is wearing one of her signature monochrome outfits.

"That for me felt like quite a meaty challenge and one I feel quite privileged to do."

The challenge may be greater than she originally anticipated. Despite getting €180m in licence fee income annually (a sum other media groups look upon with envy) and significant commercial revenues, the organisation is under pressure.

RTE was always going to lose money in 2016 due to the high cost of events such as the Olympics and the 1916 Rising commemorations. It became apparent in the early part of the year that advertising would be weaker than expected but the effect of Brexit has also had a significant impact on advertising in recent months. "A lot of the big advertisers have cut back out of London or stopped it completely," says Forbes. She says that local market is OK, but adds that the organisation "is heavily dependent on London - it's a large chunk of advertising".

"It's having a wider impact than I think people foresaw," she says.

Some ad agencies say spending on TV will be down by between 15pc to 20pc in the later months of this year, but Forbes thinks it's too early to say. "Because we are still in critical times. November and December are critical months."

However, the year has "without a doubt" been more difficult than had been anticipated.

"We will have a deficit this year. We were always going to have a deficit due to 1916, the Olympics, etc - and that has been added to by the commercial pressures."

She doesn't see the commercial environment changing next year. "The commercial area is going to continue to be volatile, given that the UK will trigger Article 50 in March."

RTE is also unhappy with public funding via the licence fee. A long hoped-for broadcasting charge has been shelved. Forbes says she was encouraged by plans by Minister Denis Naughten to tackle licence-fee evasion. "Not only is it not good that this money is not being collected, it's not good for the wider creative industry."

A crackdown on evasion may bring in several million euro in extra revenue, but the financial picture will remain difficult - as Forbes knows all too well.

"The world of media and broadcasting is changing and what we have to do, and every media organisation has to do, is look at where they are right now and re-engineer and rethink the shape of the organisation and delivery of output.

"For a period I need to delve into what does RTE look like in five years' time and what do we need to do to ensure that the national broadcaster is strong and is vibrant and is that creative cultural beacon for national Ireland."

"I'm three months in and have a lot to figure out still, but that is where we have to get to."

Five years ago, Forbes would not have considered moving back to Ireland, although she always kept close ties to her native Cork.

From Drimoleague, she attended school locally in Clonakilty as a boarder and went to UCD where she did a BA in history and politics. She immersed herself in college life and was auditor of the politics society. "It was really in my time in UCD that I began to get a love for the world of the media and advertising. And I was very involved, as you are, in college societies, in having to raise money for some production or ball or whatever. I had to regularly go and talk to whatever bank or drinks company to sponsor various things."

After college, she spent a few weeks in a Dublin agency before going to London, where she landed a media planning and buying role in Young and Rubicam.

Her job was to plan and buy the ads slots for campaigns across Europe for large clients such as AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate. Forbes was specialising in the European media scene but realised she needed to better understand the British TV buying system, which is notoriously complex.

Instead of going into an agency, she joined Turner Broadcasting, the company behind CNN and the Cartoon Network, as a sales executive, building awareness of cable and satellite TV stations. She went on to spend "an amazing 14 years" at the company.

She greatly admires Ted Turner, the American media mogul behind Turner Broadcasting. "Hugely entrepreneurial, hugely inspirational, he literally ran a trail through Europe," she says.

Forbes went on to head up the UK division of the group before joining Discovery, where she spent six years. It was a period of great expansion for Discovery and great change in media. During her time there, it acquired Eurosport, successfully bidding for the rights to the Olympics.

Although based in London, she bought a house in Glandore, Cork 16 years ago. Her family are in Cork and her partner also lives in West Cork, so commuting was part of her life. In recent years she joined the board of the Irish Times (which she has now left), the commercial board of Munster Rugby and a digital hub project for Skibbereen. "It all began a renewed love affair with Ireland but from a business context."

Forbes had asked herself, what would she do if she came home. "I had said to myself a few times if I ever come back it had got to be to run RTE, but always in the future. And then it happened."

Forbes says she came to the job with the knowledge that media is in a challenging place at the moment. But she adds that changes in media and audience demands means that she "also really saw the opportunity and next chapter of RTE".

Forbes says that the first few months have been a learning experience. "My first few weeks I was out and about constantly, trying to find my way around firstly," she quips, a reference to the sprawling nature of the campus.

This will of course change as the site is repackaged for sale, with a reconfigured RTE planned for a smaller portion of the land. It will raise up to €50m, most of which will be used for capital investment, particularly in technology.

A self-confessed media junkie, some RTE insiders see Forbes as a commercial animal. There was concern in some quarters that she would not be as strong on the content side of the organisation.

Forbes dismisses this suggestion, referencing her role in leading content at other organisations.

"I don't think you can be in a management position in any media company without having an appreciation of content."

Indeed, scheduling and content are getting her attention at present and she has very strong views around RTE's output.

"I'm really getting under the skin of the shows, the broadcasts, how we're doing things, what's good and not so good.

"There are many facets to the organisation and it is important that, as editor-in-chief, I am as close as possible particularly to the news and current affairs side. I think it is my role to question, to interrogate, to make sure we are asking the right questions and make sure we are delivering that impartial coverage."

She says that RTE's current output is already yielding good results, with RTE One and RTE Two delivering 5pc increases in audiences this year.

The 1916 programming and a strong, albeit expensive, summer of sport helped. "Likewise, radio is in a great place."

But she would like to see a greater emphasis on cultural output. "We're so strong and there is a very strong connection through news and current affairs, that I would like the connection to be as strong in the cultural aspects."

She says she is looking at those areas to see if they could be addressed through more drama, the arts and music.

Drama is expensive, however, and while many in the organisation would love to produce more indigenous programming, the funding has always been a barrier.

Forbes believes that co-funding programming is key to the future. She points to The Fall, which is co-produced with the BBC, as an example.

"Attitudes have changed. There may have been a time where RTE would go it alone for everything. The reality means that that doesn't happen any more. It can't happen."

She says that new funding models have to be considered. "That is something we are exploring and is reaping some great rewards already."

"Yes there are financial challenges at the moment and yes we do have to look at things a little bit differently but, ultimately, we have a remit to serve the nation."

She believes technology will have an important role in doing things more efficiently.

Forbes predecessor Noel Curran had indicated that if further financial difficulties faced RTE, the organisation would have little choice but to consider cutting back on services.

Outsiders would see loss-making 2fm as a candidate for disposal, given that its targets a well-served audience. Others would question RTE's need for two orchestras.

Forbes says it is too early to make any calls on services. "I think our services are strong and for me its about the piece around how we are delivering them at this point and then more to come.

"It's too soon to say we're going to cut services, we're not going there because it is very much exploratory for now."

Staff have already been warned that cost-cutting may be coming down the tracks.

"We are managing cost incredibly tightly," she says. "We are being responsible because the world is changing around us. Every manager here is being very prudent. We are doing everything we can to make sure the money we are spending is being spent in the right ways. Everyone is aware it is a challenging time," she says.

"The fact that we are looking at how we can do things differently and if they can be done more efficiently is the right thing to do."

It may be early days for Forbes but she is clearly mulling over some significant changes for RTE. Does this mean RTE may be a smaller organisation in the future, in line with smaller revenues? "It's fair to say RTE will be a different organisation but in what respects?," she says. "Still to be determined."

'I love spending time in West Cork...'

The last book I read...

Churchill and Ireland by Paul Bew

The best career advice I ever got...

When in a room meeting new people, make sure you walk away with at least two dates in the diary for coffee that could enhance your business

My favourite TV show is....

The Fall with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan

On my time off I like to...

Spend time with family and friends in beautiful West Cork

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