Andrew Lynch: RTE is not keeping up with the times - something’s got to give
RTE is teetering on a funding cliff edge as the online universe hoovers up vast swathes of the available audience. Hard decisions on how to stop the rot will determine its future viability.
So why is the mood in RTE so nervous right now?
Because, quite simply, the national broadcaster is broke.
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Just a few hours before The Late Late Show kicked off RTE’s autumn season on September 6, director general Dee Forbes emailed all 1,800 staff to warn them that major cost-cutting measures are on the way.
“Our current financial situation is not like anything we have seen before,” Forbes declared. “As a result, it will no longer be possible to continue as we are.”
Just how bad is RTE’s balance sheet?
Last year, RTE made a loss of €13m, bringing its accumulated losses since 2015 to more than €40m. Management put the blame partly on a series of “special events” it had to cover, including the presidential election, the soccer World Cup and the visit of Pope Francis.
However, analysts have pointed out that big occasions like these happen at least every couple of years – for example, 2020 will see the Olympic Games in Tokyo and almost certainly a general election.
The real problem is that more and more young people are switching off RTE and moving to podcasts, social media or streaming services such as Netflix.
This has had a devastating effect on RTE’s advertising and sponsorship income, which plunged from €239m in 2008 to €150m in 2018.
In short, RTE is not keeping up with the times – and something will have to give.
Is it possible that the Government will bail it out?
That would obviously be RTE’s first preference. Last year, Forbes lobbied for an annual funding boost of €55m, which she said could be used to transform RTE into a much more multimedia organisation.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland wasn’t entirely convinced, but did recommend a more modest increase of €30m.
Speaking on RTE radio last Sunday, however, Communications Minister Richard Bruton did not offer a lot of sympathy.
“Ordinary listeners are changing their behaviour,” he said, “[and] we have to respond to these changes.” Bruton also suggested that RTE should think about reducing the salaries of its biggest stars, including those who earn almost €300,000 more than the Taoiseach.
So should the likes of Joe Duffy and Miriam O’Callaghan start bracing themselves for a pay cut?
Maybe, but it wouldn’t make much difference in the great scheme of things.
The most recent figures available shows that RTE’s top-10 earners got just under €3m between them in 2016.
That, however, was less than 1pc of the station’s operating costs and actually represents a 32pc decrease since 2008. Back then, for example, Pat Kenny was top of the list with €950,956 – while today Ryan Tubridy has replaced him but takes home a mere €495,000.
As the public face of RTE, won’t these presenters be in the firing line anyway?
They already are, since Independent senator Ronan Mullen is planning to bring in legislation that would link all RTE salaries to public service pay scales.
Mullen says he does not see what “indispensable service to the nation” is provided by RTE presenters and points out that they can earn big money on the side anyway through personal appearances. So far, however, his bill hasn’t got much political support.
At least one presenter has decided to make a virtue out of necessity.
Earlier this month broadcaster Ray D’Arcy, who was paid €450,000 in 2016 for his television chat show and daily radio programme, announced that he is prepared to take a pay cut if asked.
“I see the reality of the media landscape,” he said, “and it’s very difficult for RTE.”
If slashing the stars’ pay won’t solve RTE’s financial crisis, what might?
Several possibilities are being mooted. One is to sell off its studio in Cork, which is infuriating local politicians who complain that RTE is too Dublin-centric already.
Another is to axe the classical music station Lyric FM, where presenter Liz Nolan is asking her listeners for support on social media.
In the long term, it might be necessary to take even more drastic measures such as getting rid of RTE2 or 2FM – but as the backlash shows, any change at all is likely to be met with fierce opposition.
What might all this mean for the television licence?
That is a big part of RTE’s problem. There has been no increase to the €160 licence fee since 2008 and Dee Forbes has claimed that it would still be good value even if doubled.
Meanwhile, around 14pc of people are successfully dodging it every year (more than twice the 6.5pc rate in Britain) and this costs RTE roughly €40m in lost revenue.
“If I was being brutally honest, I would say the TV licence system is broken,” said Mark Griffin, secretary-general of the Department of Communications, at the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee in 2017. “I am not sure it can be fixed.”
Bruton is planning to replace the licence with an all-purpose broadcasting charge that even people without televisions would have to pay.
Much to RTE’s annoyance, however, it won’t happen until 2024 at the earliest.
Does Ireland really need a public service broadcaster anyway?
In an era of fake news, Forbes argued at a conference last Friday, it’s vital to have a national media outlet that’s not purely driven by profit.
After all, no purely commercial station would ever make a programme such as Prime Time Investigates’ recent exposure of mistreated children in creches or organise events such as November’s Youth Assembly on Climate.
Most critics take that point, but still feel that RTE is spreading itself far too thin – and needs to focus on the things it is genuinely good at.
Finally, when will RTE stop complaining about the situation and actually make some decisions?
Pretty soon. Forbes says that the RTE board is preparing a report on “everything we currently do” and will share it with staff in early October.
When that happens, one big question will be whether or not the director general is prepared to lead by example – because her own annual pay package of €338,000 will surely come under scrutiny too.