Tuesday 16 July 2019

Groundhog Day as RTÉ makes case for more cash again

The convenience retailer Spar is to splash out €1m on a new cross-platform advertising campaign
The convenience retailer Spar is to splash out €1m on a new cross-platform advertising campaign

John McGee

Another RTÉ annual report is published, another loss is clocked up, another annual plea for additional funding is made and we are all left with yet another overwhelming sense of déjà vu and despondency.

Before we know it, the autumn schedule will be announced with the usual PR blast focusing on a the compelling documentaries, family entertainment shows, a slimmed-down live sports schedule, one or two new faces and of course the old reliable stars and anchors who are the public face of RTÉ.

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Behind the scenes, however, the brave face accompanying the autumn schedule, may be somewhat overshadowed by the likelihood of further job cuts, ongoing financial pressures, likely cuts on its investment in indigenous co-productions, live sports and, yes, more requests for funding.

That Ireland needs a public service broadcaster like RTÉ is beyond doubt. RTÉ does a great job in delivering news and current affairs as well as a rich and varied range of important cultural content that no other broadcaster would touch with a bargepole.

It is also a trusted source of content for many and thanks to a substantial investment in its digital capabilities in recent years, it now delivers a strong digital offering that caters for a generation of people who have opted out of watching linear TV.

Like its fellow public service broadcaster in the UK, the BBC, it is an important part of Irish society that should be protected at all costs.

But, RTÉ is also a business and while it is a not-for-profit business that has a public service mandate to fulfil, all roads still lead back to money. Or in the case of RTÉ, the lack of it.

As we already know, the broadcaster reported revenues of €339.1m in 2018 while a deficit of €13m was clocked up. Of this revenue, €189m came from the licence fee, an increase of €3m on 2017. Commercial revenues, at €150m, remain very challenged and were down from €151.5m the year before. And it's difficult to see this changing in 2019.

Despite this annual subvention of €189m, RTÉ still finds itself in a bit of bother every few years and if it wasn't for the sale of some of its land in Donnybrook two years ago, the situation we are looking at now would be extremely grave.

One of the main problems is that at an operational level, practically every part of RTÉ loses money every year. The one shining beacon in all of this is its transmission division, 2RN, which has consistently been profitable for the last number of years and contributed a surplus of €8.56m last year. Without this contribution, the impact on day-to-day cash-flow would be considerable and worrying.

But there's also something tiresome about RTE's plea that 2018's results were impacted by a number of special events, including the Papal visit and the Fifa World Cup - which cost €7.2m. The reality is that every couple of years it complains about the cost of covering so-called special events which, one could argue very strongly, are part of its public service obligations.

Surely there has to be a better way of budgeting for these events that fall within the public service remit? The reality is that every couple of years there will always be a something big like an election or referendum and if the costs of covering such events are going to put the financial health of the organisation in jeopardy, then they should not be broadcast or the budgets allocated to them should be trimmed accordingly.

RTÉ's call for an increase in funding, however, is justifiable. Even the BAI last year recommended a minimum of €30m should be given to the organisation. And it should be done sooner rather than later.

But any increase in funding from the licence fee should come with certain conditions attached and should be aimed at putting the broadcaster on a sounder and more sustainable footing.

Now is the time to start asking serious questions about the future of RTÉ and how we go about securing it. It's also an appropriate time to ask whether or not RTÉ is trying to achieve too much with the resources at its disposal and whether or not its future sustainability could be achieved by a greatly slimmed down operation at all levels, including the possible sale of some assets and brands.

These are big questions that will be difficult and painful to answer but as the next few years unfold and the commercial marketplace becomes even more competitive as new players enter the market and OTT platforms continue to grow, something has to give. With a only a finite amount of money from the licence fee available, now is the time to be asking these big questions.

Otherwise, the annual publication date of RTÉ's annual report should be renamed National Groundhog Day.

€1M UNDER SPAR’S TREE

The convenience retailer Spar is to splash out €1m on a new cross-platform advertising campaign.

Set in a lush woodland forest featuring the iconic Spar tree, the campaign, which is called 'Spar Always Changing', will be launched on TV next Wednesday. It focuses on the changing shopping habits of consumers as they travel through the various stages of life. The campaign will also run across TV, radio, online, social as well as in-store.

ENERGIA TAKES ON AIL

With the Rugby World Cup only months away and rugby still one of the hottest tickets in the sponsorship world, Energia has signed a deal with the IRFU become its official energy partner as well as lead sponsor the men's and women's All Ireland Leagues.

The five-year partnership will also see it taking on sponsorship of the Energia Club International Competition, Energia Bateman Cup and the Energia All-Ireland Junior Cup.

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