Tuesday 18 June 2019

Forbes warns RTE losses 'not sustainable'

RTE Director General Dee Forbes. Photo: Steve Humphreys
RTE Director General Dee Forbes. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

RTE director general Dee Forbes has said the broadcaster again expects to make a loss in the current year and described the organisation's successive deficits as unsustainable.

She said 2018 would be "a crunch year" for the organisation, which lost almost €20m in 2016 and is understood to have recorded a sizeable loss again in 2017.

"We have been in this cycle for a number of years," she said. "There have been numerous reports all saying RTE is not sufficiently funded. We can't plan, we can properly invest and can't really take our remit forward in the way that we would like to.

"Things need to happen this year," she added. "We have had deficits for a number of years and that's not sustainable."

Forbes was speaking to the Sunday Independent following the publication of RTE's five-year strategy in which it seeks action on increased public funding as it prepares itself for a digital-first strategy.

Some 79pc of RTE's output is still consumed in a linear or live fashion but the percentage will diminish as audiences increasingly turn to devices for entertainment and news.

RTE sold a large portion of its land in Dublin 4 last year for over €100m. The money will be used for its redundancy programme and investment in technology. The additional public service income would be used for on-going costs such as programme creation and programme acquisitions.

Forbes insisted the organisation was watching its finances extremely closely despite the losses. "We have to prioritise how we spend our money and we are doing that. We are making significant cuts to the organisation, but we are doing that at the same time as we are trying to protect the output.

"We are literally looking at every single cost, every thing we spend on right now. We've haven't exhausted it yet, that's ongoing and it's very much a part of the new RTE."

RTE director general Dee Forbes has claimed that the broadcaster is not receiving enough public funding to carry out its statutory remit. The organisation is dual-funded, getting €158.2m in commercial revenue in 2016 and €180m through the licence fee. However, the organisation claims this falls short of its requirements.

"The money we are getting now is just not doing what we need to do," said Forbes. "We get criticised on a regular basis for repeats and we are doing that because we just don't have the wherewithal to do more.

"To really deliver for Irish audiences we have to do more for Irish audiences. One of those areas is drama and because of the cutbacks over the years, drama has really suffered."

RTE's main financial win would be if Revenue began to collect the licence fee as evasion would be effectively stamped out. It would deliver up to €50m in extra revenue, RTE believes. "All we are saying is that if everybody paid the licence fee, the problem would be solved," said Forbes.

Following the last five-year review in 2013 the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland concluded that RTE should restrict commercial income in exchange for more public funding. RTE executives at the time indicated a willingness to 'rebalance' the funding model.

However, last week Forbes did not countenance this as part of the solution to the current financial difficulties, nor does the proposal form part of RTE's new five-year strategy

A report into RTE by NewEra, published in 2015 and commissioned after the conclusion of the last five-year review, suggested that RTE could make further cost reductions by "reducing/eliminating" services already provided by commercial operators. Such a radical approach could put 2fm or RTE 2 under pressure.

Forbes admitted that difficult decisions would have to be made if more funding was not secured, but said that the focus is on boosting income.

Jim Jennings, RTE director of content said RTE was "honour-bound to fight for our remit and deliver for audience across all demographics and all platforms because that is what our remit is".

"It is important that we remain strong and vibrant within this market for Irish content and we will fight for that because we believe that is the right thing to do," he said.

Forbes said RTE needed to focus on digital platforms. One recent example is comedy Young Offenders, which had 100,000 online views in seven days. "A lot of younger audiences, because of the way they view now, they are not going to come to RTE via traditional routes," she said.

The BAI is reviewing the strategy and will make recommendations to Communications Minister Denis Naughten.

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