Analysis

Saturday 26 July 2014

Jane Suiter: How RTE must live up to its remit if it's to take on global competition

Jane Suiter

Published 17/09/2013|04:00

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RTE presenters Sean O'Rourke and Miriam O'Callaghan

RTÉ's five-year strategy essentially sets out the broadcaster's stall for continued public funding. After the fiascos of Tweetgate, 'Mission to Prey' and top stars' salaries, RTE is now fighting back, arguing for the benefits of public sector (not state, it stresses) broadcasting.

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Interestingly, the new plan was published on the day that RTE, TV3, BBC and a myriad of news executives and journalists from around the world gathered in DCU on the theme of 'Can We Trust Our News?'.

Listening to the contributions from Fox News, the BBC and Al- Jazeera, among many others, it is quite clear that the challenge facing RTE is a global one. The advent of social media and the sheer scale of communications in the 21st Century presents a host of problems as well as opportunities to modern broadcasters.

From the ubiquity of major global player to the arrival of new ones and indeed even Netflix now producing content, the increasing competition for audiences and advertising revenue cannot be underestimated.

RTE is a much-loved institution as are many of its personalities. But that cannot be enough to guarantee it significant amounts of limited state resources. It must also deliver on its remit. While many dislike the dual funding and advertising revenue model, it is clear that in a country as small as Ireland there is little choice but to pursue the dual model.

In RTE's favour it has reduced its cost base by around 30pc since the peak and has implemented cutbacks not only for pay for star presenters but across the board. However, like other publicly funded institutions it must keep a relentless eye on this and not allow hubris to drive strategy again.

The five-year plan outlines two options. The first is the status quo and to retain funding at 2013 levels, and the second, more optimistic one for the broadcaster, is to grow. In a depressed advertising environment that means only one thing: additional funds from the Exchequer or the licence fee or the new public sector broadcasting charge.

Noel Curran, the director general of RTE, argues that a small country like Ireland needs a media organisation that can guarantee a strong and distinctive Irish voice and perspective on the world. The question, of course, is how much is that worth?

It is interesting that top of RTE's mission statement is to deliver "the most trusted, independent, Irish news service, accurate and impartial, for the connected age". By contrast in his contribution to the symposium yesterday, David McRedmond, chief executive of TV3, queried whether trust was not something of a 19th Century patrician value and asked whether we had moved beyond it to what was interesting. That was something Peter Horrocks of the BBC took issue with, worrying that it could mean news as entertainment and the reinforcing of stereotypes.

Among RTE's aims is the growth of News Now, where the broadcaster has already moved to a central newsdesk feeding TV, radio and the web, new investigative journalism and growth in science and technology output. If money were available, RTE would also like to invest in more drama; and after the success of 'Love/Hate' and the new 'Prime Time' investigation on creches, all that is hard to argue with. But other ideas, such as reinventing comedy and building an arts and culture hub, look more aspirational than realistic.

In reality, this strategy is part of a plan to change RTE from a public sector broadcaster to a public sector media company (which would compete even more with newspapers and other media organisations). That is the direction many of the international broadcasters, such as the BBC, have moved in and it is the way that newspapers such as 'The Washington Post' and 'The Boston Globe' have gone.

If RTE is to compete with international media companies for Irish audience share and advertising revenue, this is the only way forward.

Jane Suiter is a lecturer in the School of Communications at Dublin City University

Irish Independent

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