Sunday 17 December 2017

Comment: RTE's boss wants €15 licence fee hike - how about trying to earn it?

RTE's Dee Forbes
RTE's Dee Forbes

Pat Stacey

Being director-general of RTE is a little like being a stand-up comedian. Timing is everything. Get the timing wrong and you’re liable to lose the audience.

Maybe the current DG, Dee Forbes, should ask Tommy Tiernan or Dara O Briain for a few tips, because the timing of her comments about the TV licence fee to an Oireachtas committee on Tuesday couldn’t have been any worse, or the comments themselves, any more divorced from reality.

Forbes wants the TV licence fee raised from €160 to €175, in line with inflation. The increase would mean an additional €15m in revenue for RTE. Here, in her own words, is how she made her case:

“The cost of the TV licence fee hasn’t been increased in a decade, and this is unlike virtually any public or private utility, to keep pace with inflation.”

“Stamps have increased in price, newspapers, private TV subscriptions, phone bills, hospital fees, electricity bills, broadband, bus fares, almost everything you can think of — so why not the TV licence?”

Okay, let’s try to understand the peculiar logic at work here.

Because the price of certain goods and services, many of which are a matter of personal consumer choice (nobody is forcing you to subscribe to Netflix or buy The Herald, for instance), have increased in price, this justifies increasing the price of the TV licence fee — which is a government tax by another name. And you don’t get a choice about paying tax.

Forbes neglected to mention a few other things that have increased: house prices, rent, car insurance, home insurance, health insurance, childcare, college fees, even the groceries we buy in the supermarket. And let’s not forget homelessness; that’s gone up too.

Wages, on the other hand, are going down. You might have noticed that Forbes also referred to increased hospital fees in her argument. Bad move.

If you’re going to pitch for a few extra quid on the TV licence, don’t blithely link it to the high cost of getting sick, and casually invoke the spectre of waiting lists, patients on trolleys, postponed appointments, cancelled surgeries and reduced paediatric and mental-health services. It’s spectacularly crass, insensitive, insulting and arrogant.

Forbes has been DG since early last year. Her background (she was with Discovery Networks before joining RTE) is in sales and marketing rather than programme-making, which is, perhaps, why her pronouncements up to now have been heavy on generalised corporate-speak — “adapt or die”, “smaller, more nimble organisation” — and light on specifics about actual television programmes.

Because television programmes, not orchestras or websites or niche radio stations, are supposed to be what a TV licence primarily funds.

This begs a question: if RTE were to get a licence fee increase, what would the extra €15m be spent on?

I’d like to imagine it would be on a few more excellent documentaries, like this week’s on Christy Dignam and last week’s on John Giles. But I don’t think it would; I think it would be more of the same old stuff.

More Ray and Miriam. More Daniel and Majella. More Donal Skehan and Rachel Allen. More brain-dead lifestyle shows and property porn.

More mediocre dramas like the stodgy €6m turkey Rebellion (which is getting a sequel) or the ludicrous Striking Out (which is getting a second season). More disastrous, half-baked attempts at comedy like... well, too many to mention, too awful to think about.

More witless travel shows. ITV, arguably the worst mainstream channel in the UK, gives its viewers Joanna Lumley in India. RTE gives us Francis Brennan’s Grand Tour, or John Creedon tooling around the country in his vintage Merc, re-enacting another of his treasured childhood holidays.

The mantra of RTE down the years has always been that the licence fee is great value for money. Yet even during the Celtic Tiger years, when the national broadcaster was drowning in advertising revenue and star salaries were astronomically high, there was no drastic improvement in quality.

I’d ask the new(ish) DG to switch off the smartphone, the computer and the Sky or Virgin box for a week — no, make it a month — and watch nothing but RTE. Then convince us that what we’re getting at the moment is worth €160, let alone €175.

Herald

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