Monday 24 October 2016

RTÉ's funding model is out of date and unfair to competitors

Published 15/08/2015 | 02:30

Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny

A possible Fianna Fáil coalition with Sinn Féin, or with Fine Gael; Enda Kenny saying he won't go for more than another term; Renua setting out its stall on various policies. It's been a busy month for politics, and a busy summer indeed. But you wouldn't know it from our national broadcaster, RTÉ, which is on its customary seasonal shut down.

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'The Week in Politics', 'Late Debate' and other current affairs shows - all are off-air, as if the world had stopped moving. Even the flagship 'Prime Time' programme is tied up at port, with its capable crew grounded.

Clearly, the RTÉ establishment believes that the real world resumes later in the year, which is why it was busy launching its autumn schedule this week. It's interesting fare, but nothing to shout about. A 1916 TV drama was well flagged, as was the replacement of Ray D'Arcy for Brendan O'Connor in the Saturday night chat show slot, a risky move, indeed: D'Arcy's return to RTÉ radio has been underwhelming and his venture into TV could be even more so. Otherwise, it's slim pickings, and probably the best RTÉ could do on a shrunken budget. But, once again, viewers will been wondering why exactly they have to pay a special licence fee for the channel.

They will already have this feeling from sitting through a long RTÉ summer of imported TV shows, re-runs ('Mrs Brown's Boys', 'Love/Hate', etc) and high-profile presenters on very long holidays. And it's the same every year. Granted, politics is being covered by the very competent morning and 'Drivetime' shows, but the public might have expected a bit of TV excitement too (the Irish public love politics).

But it's not just this. Whole nights can go by in the summer when there is nothing that is Irish or fresh on RTÉ, except the nightly news. Where is the current affairs coverage? Even TV3 can put out the 'Late Review' with presenter Ger Colleran. Indeed, sometimes it seems that TV3 puts out more current affairs programming than RTÉ, and the same with Newstalk and Today FM - and yet none of these get any share of the licence fee. So just how valid is the 'public service' remit of RTÉ anymore, which merits this special tax? Perhaps it applies to Irish language services, GAA coverage and late-night radio drama, but that's about it. It is a shrinking function, from another era: the era of 'two channel land' and a 'national TV service' like the ESB or CIE.

The plan is to replace the licence fee with a wider broadcasting charge, benefiting other suppliers. But the Government has now postponed this until the next election for fear of offending people with yet another new, or 'revised', tax/charge. But even if such a tax comes in, how is it going to be distributed? The reality is that the media landscape is changing fast and in a way that recognises no borders or "public service remit". Punters are watching TV, from all over the world, on their tables and phones, without a care for its origin or viability. But, more importantly, why should we be paying this extra tax on broadcasting anyway? We already pay UPC or another provider, for our TV, usually bundled with our broadband. So, why should we have to pay again?

One has sympathy for RTÉ. It has suffered pay cuts and redundancies and got into shape for the new media landscape, only to be faced by the intense competition of a very open market.

And these RTÉ reforms are in marked contrast to the other commercial State companies, most of which have not had such pay cuts over the past five years. Indeed, many of these have been paying increments and bonuses. Annual average salaries at these State companies, such as ESB, are still in excess of most other European countries. By contrast, RTÉ has drastically trimmed its sails.

But technology has caught up with the dominance of State TV channels everywhere. Millions in advertising revenue now leave Ireland every week and go to the likes of Google and the many Sky channels. Irish television has to compete against a huge amount of English-language broadcasting from elsewhere. This is really hurting RTÉ but also TV3 and UTV. However, the latter have to get on with it, whereas RTÉ expects a leg-up from the State.

One argument is that RTÉ should abandon advertising altogether and go for a pure licence-fee model, like the BBC. But, at present, RTÉ is having it both ways, and gets the licence fee and the ad revenue. It thus drives down the price of advertising, thereby further unfairly hitting its competitors. RTÉ can effectively cross-subsidise from the licence fee and continue to run deficits, as it has done for many years.

RTÉ also distorts the market for newspapers and other media outlets, since the licence fee helps it create a daily news website which, for many punters, is a direct rival to the newspapers and other news sites, some of which have had to introduce a pay wall. All of this is very unfair and distorts the market. But it is also yet another tax on us and the worst of it is we don't get nearly enough new or Irish TV out of it, especially in the shut-down summer!

Irish Independent

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