Who owns RTE - the public or the sponsors?
MasterChef Ireland won't be on the menu this autumn. RTE, which is due to unveil its new season line-up any day now, put plans for a third series of the cookery competition into the freezer after failing to attract a new sponsor to help foot the €2m production bill.
"It's an expensive show to produce," a spokesman told my Herald colleague Melanie Finn earlier this week. "At any given time you have five camera crews working on it. Without a sponsor, it simply isn't possible to make it."
Personally, I won't be crying into my soup over the loss of MasterChef Ireland. I'm no fan of cookery shows anyway, least of all this one. Still, the news does throw some deeply unflattering light on RTE's dependence on external financial forces to keep it ticking over.
Sponsorship of television and radio programmes is nothing new. The term soap opera, for instance, stems from the fact that the sponsors and producers of many early American TV and radio dramas were soap manufacturers.
Throw a stick at any drama, comedy, light entertainment show, documentary, or sports programme on TV3, ITV, or Channel 4 and the chances are it will hit a sponsor. Even the channels' regular film slots now have sponsors. Those meerkats that pop up before, during and after Coronation Street on UTV and ITV may annoy the hell out of you, but sponsorship is a necessary and unavoidable evil on the commercial channels.
But here's the thing: RTE is not a commercial channel - or at least it's not supposed to be one. It's supposed to be a publicly-funded state broadcaster. That public funding comes from you, me and all the other people who pay €160 a year for a television licence.
If former Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte had it his way, the TV licence would have been extended to cover people who don't have televisions and supposedly watch RTE online (a breed, by the way, whose actual existence, like that of the Yeti, has yet to be definitively proven).
RTE is supposed to be our version of the BBC, for which British people pay an annual license fee equivalent to €182. Except, it's not. The BBC doesn't carry advertising.; RTE does. The BBC doesn't have programme sponsors; RTE does. In fact, the sheer number of sponsors and the extent to which they prop up the national broadcaster's output is staggering.
RTE's Media Sales website features a comparatively up to date (2013) list of its sponsored programmes. It's not just perceived "biggies" such as The Late Late Show, The Voice of Ireland, Fair City, Dragon's Den, and Republic of Telly that enjoy the patronage of commercial sugar daddies. The likes of At Your Service, Blook, Dirty Old Towns, Operation Transformation, Martin & Paul's Surf 'n' Turf, Room to Improve, Super Gardens, Rachel Allen's Easy Meals and various other featherweight lifestyle vehicles, many of them barely passable as afternoon filler material come with a sponsor attached.
Even the weather bulletins are drenched in Avonmore's creamy largesse. It seems the only RTE output not dependent on sponsorship is news, current affairs, certain documentaries and, ironically Love/Hate, which has been unable to attract a sponsor due to its violent content.
It's shocking that RTE, whose remit as a public service broadcaster is to provide the kind of content commercial channels aren't obliged to, is so reliant on the whims of external commercial forces. Remember the panic in RTE a few years ago when it looks, for a time, that The Late Late Show was facing into a new season without a sponsor?
At what point does the commercial tail begin wagging the public service dog?