Wednesday 17 July 2019

John McGee: Groundhog Day as RTE's future is still not secure

'Meanwhile, RTE, the largest public service broadcaster, has stumbled from one financial crisis to another every seven or eight years and Groundhog Day starts all over again.' (stock image)
'Meanwhile, RTE, the largest public service broadcaster, has stumbled from one financial crisis to another every seven or eight years and Groundhog Day starts all over again.' (stock image)

John McGee

How many reports on the future of public service broadcasting in Ireland do we need? Seriously, it's a legitimate question. Over the last 20 years, countless reports on the topic have been published and scrutinised by a cohort of stakeholders, consultancy firms and academics, most of which are probably gathering dust in the bowels of Government buildings.

Every time a new report is published, the feeling of deja vu soon gives way to an overwhelming sense of despondency and frustration. And every time it seems like we are getting close to coming up with a solution to this age-old problem, there's a change of Government or a well-meaning minster moves to another portfolio and it's back to square one again.

Meanwhile, RTE, the largest public service broadcaster, has stumbled from one financial crisis to another every seven or eight years and Groundhog Day starts all over again.

Against a background of profound change in the broadcasting world - and indeed the wider media universe - this is worrying.

As the titans of the global broadcasting and telecommunications world rush to create scale by merging with or acquiring each other - as evidenced by the ongoing takeover battles involving Sky, 21st Century Fox, Disney, Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner - there is a risk that public-service broadcasters will get mauled in the emerging landscape that now include the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Netflix.

There is a faint whiff of deja vu about the most recent contribution to this seemingly never-ending debate in the latest report which was published by a Joint Oireachtas Committee earlier this week.

Chaired by TD Hildegarde Naughton, the report offers a 'pre-legislative scrutiny' of the proposed Broadcasting (Amendment) Bill 2017 which was introduced last year by Communications Minister Denis Naughten. But anyone looking for a glimpse of what the future of public service broadcasting in Ireland might look like will be bitterly disappointed.

In fairness to the committee, some of its recommendations make sense. For example, it recommends that the Revenue Commissioners should be responsible for collecting the Broadcasting Charge, which will replace the TV licence as we now know it. While it doesn't go into the mechanics about how this might work, the fact that Revenue has been successfully collecting the Local Property Tax for several years shows that the mechanisms are in place.

But, obviously, more specifics are needed if they are to snare the estimated €35m-€40m which is lost annually through evasion.

The committee also touches on a number of other issues, including some changes to how the BAI is funded and the establishment of a bursary that would fund journalistic initiatives undertaken by local radio stations.

Likely to be the most contentious issue, however, is the recommendation that public-service broadcasters like RTE and TG4 should be allowed charge the pay platforms, like Sky and Virgin, retransmission fees.

At present, the pay-TV platforms don't pay the broadcasters retransmission fees for carriage of their TV stations. Nor do the broadcasters like RTE pay the pay-TV platform providers to transmit their TV channels because of the so-called 'must-carry' obligations.

Retransmission fees are a thorny issue in the Irish broadcasting world and the pay platforms are vehemently opposed to such a move.

For a start, they have suggested that the costs would ultimately be passed back to consumers who are already paying a licence fee. Why should they have to pay twice?

It has even been suggested that if retransmission fees are mandatory, RTE might be dropped altogether from their platforms, a move which could cost the Donnybrook broadcaster as much as €80m in lost advertising. It has also been suggested that if the pay platforms dropped RTE, they too would lose customers.

By introducing retransmission fees into the debate, the Minister has opened up a Pandora's Box and the Oireachtas Committee has now recommended, quelle surprise, "a detailed regulatory impact analysis" to be carried out to examine the impact on all the stakeholders.

In the meantime, it recommends that a voluntary carriage fee regime is "plausible or desirable as an interim solution".

Good luck with that.

Possibly the most sensible of all the suggestions, however, is that Naughten should use this as an opportunity to carry out a review of broadcasting legislation and assess whether "the legislative framework remains fit for purpose considering the significant change in the industry over the past 10 years".

The committee members are right in arriving at this assertion but it's not the last 10 years we should be concerning ourselves with - it's what is going to happen over the next 10 years.

And not just in the broadcasting world either. If this means another few reports to get it right, so be it.

But I hope we are not still having this conversation 10 years from now.

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