RTÉ facing an uphill battle to keep quality service
Published 10/09/2016 | 02:30
The broadcasting industry - for all the billions pumped into it over its brief life - has never really fulfilled its initial promise. Despite all the investment, radio and television are essentially wasteful business models that provide us with mediocre pastimes.
As we slide ever further down the slippery slope of good taste, it is no wonder that intelligent people now find it hard work to take seriously some of the offerings on our screens. Especially those "reality" shows which loiter at the very edge of reasonable behaviour.
There is nothing remotely trivial about the politics of broadcasting, however. The saviour for many broadcasters nowadays is the news and current affairs content. Once considered the more pedestrian sister to the glitz and glamour of drama, sports and the arts, news can provide a lifeline conferring credibility and respect.
As RTÉ completes its search for a managing director for its news and current affairs division, the broadcasting landscape in Ireland is far more varied and volatile than ever before. RTÉ can no longer depend on its historical dominance or its physical size to win the race as market leader. Neither can the station rest on its laurels and simply depend on news or current affairs to provide it with a life support.
When the new Director General of RTÉ, Dee Forbes, met earlier this week with Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, there was much to discuss.
Most pertinent was the question of how does RTÉ continue to provide public service broadcasting when it is facing increased competition and falling revenues and audiences.
Until recently, RTÉ has suffered from a sort of corporate superiority complex - small wonder given the extraordinary amount of time it has had a captive Irish audience all to itself. In fact, RTÉ's radio service had its own way from 1926 right up until the arrival of television in 1961. Commercial radio did not come on the scene until 1989, and the first commercial TV broadcaster, TV3, arrived only in 1998. RTÉ's dominance left a legacy of ownership and entitlement that lingers in Montrose like an antique heirloom they just cannot seem to shift.
In recent years, external economic forces inflicted huge change on the station as money, the great leveller, became increasingly scarce.
The economic tsunami that ripped through Ireland meant a huge reduction in job numbers at the station, significant restructuring, loss of talent and an advertising revenue collapse. The changes enforced a new humility on the organisation and an acceptance that they were no longer untouchable.
Technology has delivered choices through a variety of new channels - satellite, cable and digital - which makes audiences harder to hold than ever before. There are over 200 channels available in Ireland and the fight for advertisers has never been more cut-throat.
In the short term, RTÉ's greatest threat is from increasing investment for current competitors in the local Irish market. Recently bought by Virgin Media, at TV3, the one-time neglected orphan of Irish broadcasting, they are ebullient. It's like they have been adopted by a Rothschild.
They are upping the ante in a very determined way to go for RTÉ's prime time jugular. What is worse, they are using some of their former talent and backroom people to do it.
TV3 is now owned by the Virgin/Liberty group, which not only has deep pockets, but guaranteed access to ITV programming. In the longer term, links with Virgin may offer TV3 access to technology via set-top boxes, and an advantage for lucrative advertisers to target audiences more specifically than RTÉ can.
If that were not enough, there are about 40 channels on Sky, which is selling advertising directly into the Irish market and is also in constant competition with RTÉ. Increased competition and more demanding audiences mean that RTÉ has much ammunition when championing its case for an increased license fee to the Government. The arguments may be right - but the timing couldn't be worse.
The public funding that RTÉ receives is notionally reliant on critical audience levels to justify funding but the key variable is political will. It is unlikely to find much solace from this precarious Government which seems to find itself in constant crisis.
The man with responsibility for RTÉ is Roscommon's Minister Denis Naughten in the Department of Communications. So far he has impressed in terms of adjusting to life as a senior minster. More politically astute than many of the more senior members of cabinet, his no-nonsense, head-down approach is working well. He has juggled delicate political issues deftly.
The previous Programme for Government was committed to examining the TV licence fee and expanding technologies as a household-based Public Service Broadcasting Charge - a charge that would have applied to all households and relevant businesses.
But RTÉ has been told that Minister Naughten will not be pursing this; it's binned. Instead he will bring proposals to Cabinet in relation to RTÉ's licence fee. His approach? No fee increase - collect what you should be collecting first before you start looking for increases.
He will not be popular out in Donnybrook but RTÉ will not find many friends around the Cabinet table to champion its cause either. There was no love lost between the national broadcaster and the previous administration, in particular in relation to how RTÉ handled the water charge issue. Some seasoned broadcasters at the station bemoaned the level of interference from government handlers, with RTÉ bombarded on a daily basis with cries of unfair treatment and imbalance during the last general election campaign.
Money, corporate empires and Government interests take broadcasting business out of the hands of ordinary viewers. For those of us who don't believe that "the only way is Essex", and couldn't give a damn about the size of Kim Kardashian's expanding and contracting accordion arse, broadcast media will continue to prod us to consume without caring and force us to believe without really thinking.
In the meantime, the new Director General faces an uphill battle to continue to deliver quality public service broadcasting.