Saturday 29 November 2014

Eamon Delaney: Why can't generously funded RTE stand on its own two feet?

Published 19/07/2013 | 05:00

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

RTE may get more public funding in the near future to make up for its continuing financial shortfalls, says Pat Rabbitte. This will create alarm among those in commercial media who feel RTE already has an unfair advantage with both licence fee and advertising revenue. Mr Rabbitte still believes RTE has a public service function that is not catered for by the broader media.

Either way, the media landscape is changing rapidly, and in a way that recognises no borders or public service remit. People are watching TV from all over their world on their tablets and phones without a care for its origin or viability. One thus has sympathy for RTE. It has imposed rounds of pay cuts and voluntary job losses. From its days of over-manning and bureaucratic dead wood, it has got itself back into shape for the new world, and then watched the advertising revenue disappear overseas.

Those RTE reforms, incidentally, are in marked contrast to the other commercial state companies, most of which have not imposed pay cuts over the past three years. Indeed, many of these have been paying increments and bonuses. Annual

average salaries at these companies remain at levels in excess of most other European countries – €77,000 at Eirgrid, for example, and €76,000 at the Railway Procurement Agency.

But so precarious have things become in the media world that despite all its cuts, RTE is still making losses. This is because of the mass departure of advertising revenue, with hundreds of millions now leaving Ireland to go to the likes of Google and the many Sky channels.

Ireland has the misfortune (or fortune for the viewer) of having to compete against the increasing amount of English-language broadcasting from elsewhere. This is really hurting RTE, but also TV3.

However, TV3 has to get on with it, whereas RTE expects a leg-up from the State.

Just how valid is this public service remit of RTE any more? Maybe it exists for GAA coverage, documentaries and late-night radio drama, but it is a shrinking function from another era. In terms of current affairs and debate, there is now a service from Newstalk, Today FM and TV3 every bit as good. Indeed, sometimes even better.

While RTE is often stretched trying to cover the daytime news, which it does very well, especially on radio, sometimes by night it relies on a re-invigorated 'Prime Time' – and that's it.

On a recent Wednesday night, for example, after a busy day of politics, the main night-time showing on RTE One was 'American Gangster' and on RTE Two it was 'Shameless USA'. Meanwhile, TV3 was covering the new mortgage guidelines on its 'Midweek' show with the Vincent Browne show following. On a night like this, one wonders who should get the licence fee.

RTE must have assumed that the audience had already moved on to movies and entertainment, and they might be right. In which case, why not embrace the open market of competition and whatever the market wants? (The other argument is to go for a pure licence-fee model, like the BBC). In the current situation, RTE is having it both ways.

And this is more than the advantage of having two sources of funding. It is also distorting the market for others by keeping advertising rates low. And RTE has a free news website when the newspapers are introducing pay walls.

ONE wonders at the priorities in terms of RTE spending. The high salaries for certain presenters have now been considerably cut, but there are still more than 50 people in Montrose on more than €100,000 a year.

How are so many such salaries in a loss-making public body justified at this time? One of the features of the TV3 studio is how fit and lean they run things, whereas arriving in RTE is to come upon a sprawling campus and a well-filled semi-state car park. Old habits endure. Other spending cuts are puzzling. The restaurant drama 'Raw' was cancelled because drama costs are high, but ratings for the show were very high.

And that is the thing about RTE. It still gets high ratings, and it shouldn't need a further leg up from the State. The other radio and TV stations do not get it, nor do the newspapers.

It is time RTE faced the open market like everyone else.

Irish Independent

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