Friday 23 February 2018

Adrian Weckler: RTE has lost plot on TV funding

The rise of on-demand services like Netflix has hit traditional TV viewing
The rise of on-demand services like Netflix has hit traditional TV viewing
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Last week, the Government abandoned its plans to tag a TV licence onto laptops, large tablets and other non-TV screens of over 11 inches.

It did so because the plan was unworkable.

Whereas TV licence inspectors can currently detect television sets by peeping into ground-floor living room windows, it would be almost impossible to tell whether someone had a laptop in their bedroom.

So what does the Government do now? It says that it will try to improve enforcement of TV licence rules by seeking better adherence rates through a new tender for TV licence collectors. The Government says that just such a strategy led to a 50pc fall in the TV licence truancy rate in the UK.

But even if this works, it's a temporary reprieve. The Government, RTE and everyone who believes in a public service broadcasting funding system face a stark reality. A large chunk of people are shifting away from television sets as their means of watching TV.

Ask anyone under the age of 30 what they watch or how they watch it and you'll get a very different picture from the traditional idea of the television set in the front room, kitchen or bedroom.

A combination of laptops, tablets and huge phones now vie with big-screen television sets as the displays of choice for younger people.

They don't have to watch pirated material, either. The amount of legal, entertaining, affordable TV programmes, movies and sport that is now available to stream on Irish phones and laptops has exploded in the last two years.

Netflix is no longer a platform for ancient B-movies and also-ran TV series. It is now pushing out premium box sets and making its own hit series.

Sky, one of the savviest TV operators around, has just launched an online-only streaming service that shows almost everything it puts out through its traditional satellite service. In other words, it is willing to cannibalise some of its own traditional TV business to keep pace with the direction the market is going in. It can see which way the wind is blowing.

Meteor recently started giving some of its mobile customers Eir Sport streams - including Premier League football matches - for free.

Amazon Prime Video, while it may have a pretty dismal array of television shows for its Irish audience, is likely to ramp up its offering here over the next year. Even YouTube, which already has a significant audience in Ireland among younger people through a series of independent YouTube life-bloggers, has said it will commission professional television shows to compete with other broadcasters.

So we're still at an early stage of television consumption shifting from one TV set in the living room to multiple devices from multiple online streaming sources, few of which are live, scheduled broadcasts.

Advertisers know this only too well. Despite the best efforts from traditional broadcasters to paint a picture of continuity in the living room, it's abundantly clear that people are moving large chunks of their viewing time to time-shifted programming or on-demand streaming. That usually means that they don't see the ads. And that makes advertisers re-evaluate where their budgets should go.

So if the Government is abandoning its plans to tax non-television screens, how will RTE - which is gradually losing ad money as viewership diversifies to on-demand platforms - meet its funding requirements?

RTE favours an increase in the actual TV licence rate to make up for the growing shortfall. Politically, this is next to impossible in a post-water tax climate.

So the Government looks like it will kick the can down the road a little and say that it has made some effort with new enforcement tender contracts.

Clearly, it won't be able to do this for very long.

The TV licence debate polarises opinion in Ireland. Some decry it as a regressive tax while others say that it is important to provide minimum standards of public discussion, current affairs and cultural programming.

The debate is even sharper within the media industry, splitting along predictable lines. Those who work for independent broadcasters or rival news media criticise the TV licence as an unfair subsidy to a competitive rival. By contrast, RTE's 2,000-strong workforce (whose number matches a large chunk of all the rest of the country's media combined) obviously feel very differently.

There are decent arguments on both sides of this debate. While it seems a little odd to pay a mandatory €160 annual subscription for a TV and radio service you may not use, there is no doubt that the funding RTE receives gives it time and space to devote resources toward news and current affairs that a private sector rival may not be able to replicate whether RTE existed or not.

This becomes pretty clear at general elections. There's no question that Independent News & Media titles, as well as the Irish Times and others, contribute a huge amount to public understanding and civic discussion. Collectively, we often lead public debate and advance critical stories. But for concentrated set-pieces, such as a general election, RTE's funding gives it production capabilities beyond what any of the rest of us can muster in a small ad-supported market. This is undeniable.

The question is whether such events are considered important enough to continue a public service broadcasting funding system.

The government clearly thinks there is still a valuable role for such a media entity that exists outside the cut and thrust of scrapping for sponsors and ads to keep such coverage going.

Obviously, existing media companies might legitimately argue that there should be a public sector broadcasting fund that was dispersed more widely than just to RTE.

But that brings matters back to the same point: where does the money come from? A TV licence? Direct taxes?

Clearly, taxing laptops screens wasn't the answer.

But we will all have to make some pretty fundamental decisions soon about whether we want to have a publicly-funded broadcaster or not.

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