Sunday 1 February 2015

The top 10 waiting in the wings

As an RTé boss talks tough on salaries, Kim Bielenberg picks the replacements if any stars do defect

RTE stars Miriam
O'Callaghan and Ryan
RTE stars Miriam O'Callaghan and Ryan Tubridy

More than any other group in the public service, they enjoyed the benefits of the bubble economy, but RTé's best-paid presenters are having to adjust to more modest lifestyles.

RTé's director general Noel Curran this week more or less said that the cosseted stars would have to take pay cuts, or try their luck elsewhere.

"We may, during this process of renegotiation, lose some of our most talented and loved presenters to our competitors,'' said Curran, with perhaps a hint of tongue in cheek.

"That would be very regrettable, but if some choose to leave, we will adjust, find new voices and new ways to deliver services and programmes."

In other words, RTé's stars are being welcomed back to planet Earth.

At their peak, the salaries paid to "top talent'' were one of the wonders of the broadcasting world.

Derek Mooney, for example, hardly the biggest star in firmament, earned €286,000 a year. Marian Finucane cost the taxpayer €570,00 for a programme that goes out twice a week, and Pat Kenny topped the pile at €950,000.

RTé has long justified paying its top performers what were perceived to be exorbitant salaries on the basis that it had to pay its talent competitive rates in order to keep them.

In the past, criticism of this taxpayer-funded largesse was dismissed as populist begrudgery. Defenders of RTé's star system warned that stars could simply jump ship to TV3, Newstalk, Today FM or British stations.

It is highly questionable whether broadcasters were ever knocking on the doors of the agents of the stars in great numbers, offering even more inflated salaries.

Deep down, the RTé boss Noel Curran must know that they are certainly not queuing up with cheque books now.

If Curran had any doubt about that, Andrew Hanlon, a senior executive at the rival station TV3, made it clear that RTé's only domestic TV rival would not be offering lavish pay packets. Hanlon, director of news at TV3, told me that presenters at his station were paid a fraction of what was paid to the top stars in RTé.

Andrew Hanlon said: "Never in a month of Sundays could we pay the same lavish pay packets as those in RTé. We have to run a business.''

Hanlon did not want to reveal the salary levels of his senior presenters.

The pay cuts of 30pc affecting the top stars may seem substantial, but they are not happening over a short period of time. The cuts are being made from the peak of 2008 and will take place over a five-year period until 2013 as the stars' contracts come up for renewal.

Even after pay cuts of 30pc, our leading public broadcasters still receive exceptional salaries and generous holidays.

In the Netherlands, a prosperous country with four times the population of Ireland, there was uproar among taxpayers after it was found that the pay of top broadcasters had edged over €180,000, the salary of the Dutch prime minister.

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