News Martina Devlin

Friday 29 August 2014

It's time for a smaller RTE to be funded by the licence only

Published 29/08/2013 | 05:00

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Nobody will be discussing 'Celebrity Masterchef' 33 years from now

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I like RTE. I trust it. And I want to see it thrive. But not at the cost of preferential treatment from the State which allows RTE to undermine the business model of its competitors.

The licence fee is a necessary evil in my book, because it finances programmes with a news analysis or cultural content that won't necessarily generate ratings. To avoid a Fox News-style world vision and to guarantee Irish content, I suck up that €160 annual charge.

Most of us do. Evasion rates are running at 16pc, which, although high, still means that the majority of citizens accept the principle of holding an umbrella over the public-service broadcaster.

But the dual-funding model bothers me: umbrella plus raincoat, the licence fee in addition to income from advertising.

A vibrant media marketplace enhances democracy, social cohesion and knowledge of the world around us. The media isn't perfect and mistakes are made, but its input is worthwhile.

The best way of safeguarding that contribution is a well-funded public-service broadcaster, plus independents capable of holding their own against it.

However, the stormy financial reality which swept in five years ago, with blue skies remaining a distant hope, makes it harder than ever for independents to compete against RTE.

Currently, the national broadcaster is doubly sheltered, thanks to revenue streams from the licence fee and commercial operations. But every euro it takes in from advertising means a euro less is available for independents. And with no drumbeats of recovery in advertising spend, the forecast remains overcast for the independent sector.

At this point, let's address the misconception that RTE is the only broadcaster with significant public-service content. This is wrong, particularly in the radio sphere. Regional radio stations have a strong public-broadcasting element, as does Newstalk, while TV3's 'Tonight With Vincent Brown' offers a platform for debate on television.

Meanwhile, RTE has turned its hand to activities in which other broadcasters engage, airing programmes singularly lacking in any public-service remit. Some are ratings winners, of course. But search in vain for any originality.

The dual-funding template needs to be dismantled. Replace it with a single funding model, such as the BBC operates under: if a broadcaster receives public money it should become a commercial-free zone. Once ads are run, there is little left to differentiate it from another station.

Any suggestion of imitating the BBC model is usually shot down on the basis of Ireland's significantly smaller population base, with only 1.7 million eligible households to finance the charge.

This is a legitimate argument – but the answer is to shrink RTE. First on the auction block should be 2fm, which is essentially a pop station. There is nothing unique in that. Twiddle the radio dial and one pop station after another bursts through the static.

A case could also be made for selling RTE2, with its excess of bought-in content, such as 'The Simpsons' – a terrific show but not one for which audiences need to pay €160 a year. The sport on RTE2 fulfils its public service remit and is well-watched, but sport could be moved to TG4.

A slimmed-down RTE will be cheaper to run and won't need dual funding. Last year, €181m was raised from the licence fee and €154m from commercial activities, including sponsorship. Those advertising figures are back at 2003 levels.

So too many spoons are dipping into a half-full pot. Some independents will lift out empty spoons and consequently may fall by the wayside unless an intervention happens. Exclude RTE and more advertising revenue becomes available for the independents to share.

The same principle applies to the RTE website. Its news service lives off resources created by the licence fee, but competes directly with newspapers, which are struggling to survive. RTE's website offers no unique service and should therefore operate on a commercial footing.

Meanwhile, every cloud has a silver lining. Despite losing advertising revenue, RTE will gain stability for budget planning, knowing exactly how much revenue to expect, rather than continuing at the mercy of a fluctuating income stream.

So what do audiences receive in return? We are entitled to distinctively Irish content. We should also expect investment in original programming, perhaps with the cash raised by selling off 2fm and RTE2. Its news and current affairs are generally sound, despite the twin horrors of 'Mission to Prey' and Tweetgate, but RTE could raise its game in relation to drama and documentaries.

Where are the training and nurturing, let alone the platform, for young or emerging writers, producers and directors? Talented people must look further afield because there is little here for them. Script development and production training would provide more work.

Part of the reason people still talk about 'Strumpet City' isn't just because it is the centenary of the Lockout, but because this epic 1980 drama series was an example of excellence in home-grown programme-making. It stirred, gripped and educated people. Nobody will be discussing 'Celebrity MasterChef' 33 years from now.

'Love/Hate' has been a success story as well. But between 1980 and 2010, when the crime drama first aired, there hasn't been much to trumpet about – well-handled Eurovision stagings and zeitgeist social debate on 'The Late Late Show' under Byrne and Kenny aside.

RTE is a national asset and lopping off elements needs to be handled carefully. Slice away too exuberantly and there is no reason to have a licence fee at all. Equally, something has to give.

One final point: if the licence fee is to be replaced with a broadcasting charge for all citizens, then the Government must ensure that everyone has access to reliable broadband coverage.

Currently it's patchy in areas – and not just in those caves where Pat Rabbitte suggested that people who say they don't tune in might be holed up.

Irish Independent

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