Friday 30 September 2016

Commercial stations deserve a greater share of licence fee

Patrick O'Donovan

Published 02/04/2015 | 02:30

'Every day across Ireland thousands of people tune into local, regional, commercial and community radio stations'
'Every day across Ireland thousands of people tune into local, regional, commercial and community radio stations'

What is Public Service Broadcasting and how is it defined? Well, according to law "public service broadcaster" applies to RTÉ, TG4, the Houses of the Oireachtas Channel and the Irish Film Channel. But surely it's more than that. I believe today it should be something along the lines of a broadcaster, public or private, whose role is to inform and entertain its audience within certain guidelines.

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Every day across Ireland thousands of people tune into local, regional, commercial and community radio stations. They turn the dial for local news, current affairs, community notes, sports programmes, agricultural programmes and obituaries. Also, throughout the year, regional, provincial and national sporting events, together with days special like election counts, are broadcast. Most days people can listen to their public representatives debating national and local issues while being held to account on these stations. While this is an important feature of how our democracy works, it isn't recognised at all.

It's not that long ago that familiar voices could be heard on the airwaves with about the same frequency as a fly-past from Halley's Comet. Radio was very much a Dublin-centric medium.

People from the country had to resort to Arthur Murphy's 'Mailbag' to have their issue and their parish name aired on the national broadcaster. But local commercial radio changed that. It gave a platform to local voices but it still remains outside the official definition of Public Service Broadcasting.

These free-to-air licensed stations, which like their "public service" competitors are properly regulated, do more than provide local information and debate. Music, Irish language programming, documentaries, outside broadcasts and a range of other programmes are a daily element of their work. So wouldn't you imagine the State would recognise their role and invest in them? If we really value the contribution they make then we should support them. Their programming is informative and entertaining and given the listenership figures, it's clearly based on the people that matter and there is very little difference between them and the "public service broadcaster." The same could just as easily be said about independent TV stations.

The TV licence is €160. In 2014, the fee raised €214m. Of that, An Post got €11m; TG4 €9.25m; the Broadcasting Fund €14.2m; and RTE almost €179m, or 84pc. This means RTE got €134 from every licence.

But what is the Broadcasting Fund? It's a fund which all broadcasters, public and private, can apply to for producing programmes. Their share of the licence fee amounts to €10.65 per, or 6.6pc. The absence of a balance doesn't end there. The state broadcaster is also able to compete with the commercial stations for advertising while maintaining the €214m cushion from the licence fee.

This compounds the difficult position that the commercial stations are in. In 2014, 1,018,370 licences were paid for. But collecting the fee is difficult and last year, 16,566 summonses were issued for non-payment.

Those one million-plus TV licence holders who pay the charge should be entitled to a greater level of accountability and regional spread for their €160. If a new definition of "public service broadcaster" is to be developed, it needs to reflect what is actually happening in broadcasting at the moment in Ireland.

Patrick O'Donovan is a Fine Gael TD for Limerick

Irish Independent

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