Sunday 20 January 2019

RTE watchdog review to study scale of service

Broadcaster's funding and range of activities under scrutiny by BAI

RTE director general Dee Forbes took charge of the broadcaster in 2016. Photo: David Conachy.
RTE director general Dee Forbes took charge of the broadcaster in 2016. Photo: David Conachy.
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

RTE's five-year statutory review will hone in on its funding shortfalls and the sustainability of its wide-ranging services, according to Michael O'Keeffe, chief executive of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

RTE, headed up by director general Dee Forbes, has submitted a five-year plan for the organisation and the BAI is currently assessing the detailed documents outlining proposals for the future of the broadcaster.

The regulator has commissioned consultants, the Communications Chamber, to analyse RTE's submission and an initial presentation to the board has taken place.

It is expected that the BAI will submit recommendations to Communications Minister Denis Naughten in April.

"RTE has set out its vision under the new One RTE strategy, the new structures, and they have a whole range of plans under a range of headings. The key issue for them is money, their funding situation is not good and they need that addressed," said O'Keeffe.

"There would be one view that, instead of running up the deficits like they did in recent years, they should have been addressing the scale of what they do and they've never addressed that."

He said some operators in the commercial sector had asked if the scale of RTE's activities is justified given its financial difficulties. "It may well be that question will be asked in that review. The scale of what you do."

However, sources close to RTE pointed out that the organisation has been very restricted in its ability to curtail services. Most decisions require approval from either the BAI or government. For example, attempts by RTE to close teletext service Aertel two years ago were thwarted despite the fact that far more sophisticated digital services are now available.

O'Keeffe said that much of RTE's plans were dependent on increased funding. "Their approach has been 'Let's restructure and cut' and the intention is that the restructuring will drive a very successful RTE into the future but they are very clear they won't do it within the current funding regime.

"Their plan is based on them sustaining services but in a different way but they say that we can't do that if you don't look at the funding. The funding model isn't working," he added. "The question that poses then is if you don't get that funding, where does that leave you? These are the kind of issues that review is considering."

O'Keeffe said that improved collection of the Licence Fee would be a breakthrough for funding.

The BAI is not directly involved in decision making around the Licence Fee collection.

However, O'Keeffe said: "Anything that supports increased funding for the broadcasters is a positive thing. We will have had discussions with the department on ideas we give a view on but ultimately they make the decision."

The BAI will make recommendations to Naughten who will then bring them to government.

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