Friday 23 August 2019

Pat Stacey: How do you solve a problem like RTE?

A good way to start would be to stop blaming licence payers

Eamon Dunphy, Damien Duff and presenter Darragh Maloney at RTE's World Cup launch. Photo: Donall Farmer
Eamon Dunphy, Damien Duff and presenter Darragh Maloney at RTE's World Cup launch. Photo: Donall Farmer

Pat Stacey

RTE is facing a financial crisis again. I’m pretty sure I’ve typed that exact sentence quite a few times in the many years I’ve been doing this job.

It’s difficult not to repeat yourself, to be honest, because RTE always seems to be facing a financial crisis of one description or another.

The state broadcaster’s annual report, released on Tuesday, reveals it recorded a net loss last year of €13m.

RTE is putting some of the blame for this on the €7.2m it cost to cover the World Cup, the presidential election and the pope’s three-day visit to Ireland — although there’s no breakdown of the individual bill for each of them.

The rest of the blame is directed at the high cost of collecting the licence fee (which RTE Director-General Dee Forbes maintains is too cheap at €160 anyway) and the high rate of licence-fee evasion.

“We want to do more,” said Forbes, calling for licence-fee reform. “We are full of programme ideas, but every day we have to curtail our own ambitions and the creative ambitions of the broader independent production sector due to our constrained resources.”

Passionate words, those. We might be inclined to give them more credence, to have a smidgen more sympathy and understanding, if we hadn’t heard them so many times in the past from so many different director-generals.

This is the same old tune being played on the same battered, scratchy old violin. And it doesn’t get any more pleasing to the ear.

Nobody with a grain of common sense would deny that we need a state broadcaster. It’s essential to the functioning of an open democracy. No commercial terrestrial broadcaster would provide the kind of news, current affairs and political coverage RTE provides.

Major sporting events like Olympics and World Cups (men and women’s), which RTE covers brilliantly, by the way, would immediately be shoved behind a paywall.

Breaking RTE up and selling it off to the highest bidder — which is what some right-wing political and commercial interests in Britain would dearly love to see happening to its closest counterpart, the BBC — would be disastrous. If you want to see what the alternative looks like, scroll down through the EPG on your television and look at the worst of the junk TV being pumped out, 24/7.

Nobody is denying, either, that the lack of money is a major problem. Every state broadcaster in Europe has been impacted by competition from deep-pocketed satellite outfits, streaming services and the general fragmentation of the audience.

Every one of them has had to make savage cutbacks — although not all of them enjoy the luxury of the dual-funding model of TV licence takings and advertising revenue.

But pointing the finger at viewers and telling those of us who dutifully pay our €160 every year that it’s not enough, and that we have to cough up more if we want the television service we think we’re entitled to, is an insult, frankly.

It’s not just the money shortage that’s the problem; it’s also the shortage of imagination, and the unwillingness of RTE to examine its own culture and creative choices.

When Forbes talks about being “full of programme ideas”, what kind of programmes is she talking about? More formulaic cookery, lifestyle, DIY and property porn shows? More witless travelogues with Francis Brennan?

More half-baked, poorly-written comedies and dramas, which appear to get the green light without anyone exerting quality control over the scripts? More dud chat shows, all copying one another?

You need money to make TV, but you need good ideas even more. The truth is that when RTE was rolling in cash during the boom years, the quality of its programming didn’t appreciably improve. It squandered a lot of money, not least on servicing the obscenely high salaries of a handful of supposedly indispensable “stars”.

There’s currently no evidence to suggest things will get any better if it’s granted a licence fee hike.

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