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RTÉ faces more financial challenges as licence fee doesn't cut it

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Money worry: RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes faces more financial pressure from covering forthcoming big events. Photo: David Conachy

Money worry: RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes faces more financial pressure from covering forthcoming big events. Photo: David Conachy

Money worry: RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes faces more financial pressure from covering forthcoming big events. Photo: David Conachy

As the curtain came down on RTÉ's 1916 Centenary Concert at the Bord Gáis theatre in March 2016, RTÉ bosses could afford themselves a smile of satisfaction.

The performance had received a rapturous reception, not least from President Michael D Higgins, as the night also rubber-stamped RTÉ's place at the centre of Irish culture.

But it came at a price - RTÉ state that the cost of staging the concert was a staggering €2.46m.

The Department of Culture contributed towards the cost of the 1916 celebrations but how the cost of the concert rose to such a level remains unknown as RTÉ has declined for commercial reasons to disclose the amount paid to artists on the night.

The spend on the single night - more than the annual revenues of a fair swathe of medium-sized local radio stations - was brought into sharp focus this week as it was revealed RTÉ's loosening of the purse-strings to cover more special events last year helped plunge the broadcaster into the red.

The €7m spend on covering special events including the presidential election, the World Cup and papal visit contributed to RTÉ recording a loss of €13m for 2018.

This came just two years after the station splurged €16m covering special events including the 1916 Centenary, general election, Euro 2016 and the summer Olympics.

There will be little respite for RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes with more special events including the Tokyo Olympics, the 2020 Euros and a likely general election.

This is against the background of RTÉ's commercial revenue plunging by €89m from €239m in 2008 to €150m last year and continuing government stasis in dealing with the matter of the licence fee.

Between 2018 and 2008, combined licence fee and commercial revenues have reduced by 23pc from €439m to €339m and operating costs have reduced by the same percentage level.

In the annual report, Ms Forbes makes a cogent and compelling case for the reform of the licence fee system.

An Post is tasked with collection of the licence fee and the report shows licence evasion rates stand at 14pc compared to less than half of that in the UK at 6.5pc, resulting in €40m in foregone licence fee income.

Ms Forbes also points to most recent figures showing that 10.6pc of Irish homes no longer have a TV so while householders may watch the 'Six One' news and 'The Sunday Game' on their laptop, they are not required to a pay for it through a TV licence. The last time the licence fee increased was in January 2008, to €160.

Ms Forbes has also to grapple with reaching a resolution with the claims of 106 contractors which is sure to add to RTÉ's staff costs of €148.4m.

Veteran broadcaster Caimin Jones has worked in the commercial sector as founding chief executive of Clare FM and also worked with RTÉ.

Mr Jones said: "The range and quality of programming will inevitably decline unless licence revenue increases. However, the concept of a compulsory licence fee or tax to fund radio and television programmes is becoming more difficult to sustain in an age when so much information is available free of charge.

"Politicians are unlikely to touch it this side of the next general election. RTÉ could do themselves a great favour by tackling head-on the exorbitant salaries paid to top earners. It is the elephant in the room.'

Seamus Dooley, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, agrees RTÉ's top stars are paid too much.

He said: "I also think that the top pay of a small group has coloured the perception of RTÉ as a high pay organisation. It's not."

Coco Television produces one of RTÉ's top-rated shows 'Room to Improve' - last year the episode featuring Daniel O'Donnell attracted 860,000 viewers and was the most watched entertainment programme outside of 'The Late Late Toy Show'.

Stuart Switzer, chief executive of Coco Television said the obvious short-term solution to RTÉ's loss "is to reduce licence fee evasion". He said: "I believe it is now time for a creative re-imagination of our broadcasting landscape that does not involve increasing the licence fee or any State investment, but includes the capture of a proportion of the significant broadcasting related outflows that leave this country ever year."

Shinawil produces the 'Dancing with the Stars' rating juggernaut each January and its chief executive, Larry Bass, said "the current position of the funding of Irish content on Irish television is not fit for purpose".

A spokesperson for RTÉ said: "As stated in its annual report 2018, total operating costs for the year were €339.8m, an increase of €5.3m on 2017 levels, due to the cost of special events covered during the year. The cost of special events in 2018 was €7.2m and included the papal visit, the presidential election and coverage of the World Cup 2018. Operating costs continue to be contained and 2018 operating costs were still 23pc lower than 2008 levels.

"RTÉ produces all special events at the most efficient cost possible, while maintaining the high standards of production people have come to expect from us."

Irish Independent