Pat Stacey: RTE has to take some of the blame for its financial peril
RTE has been making the news a lot these last few weeks. But rather than heralding the imminent arrival of an exciting new drama, comedy or documentary series, the headlines have overwhelmingly been about the national broadcaster’s money problems.
In a nutshell, it doesn’t have any. The organisation has been enduring major financial problems for some time now and recorded a loss of €13m in 2018.
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But this year, the situation has rapidly deteriorated from a crisis into a full-blown nightmare, which, to quote from a recent email Director General Dee Forbes sent to staff, “is not like anything we have seen before”.
In the wake of swingeing pay slashes and deep job cuts, it was reported last month that RTE was preparing to sell its Cork studios – home to the likes of John Creedon’s radio show and RTE1’s Today with Maura and Daithí, and the only large studio complex outside Dublin – as well as another chunk of land from its Donnybrook campus.
According to property experts, however, the sale is unlikely to bring in anywhere near the €107.4m fetched by the sale of 8.64 acres of campus land in 2017.
Cork isn’t the only RTE operation outside the capital that’s currently quaking in the shadow of the axe, either.
It’s looking increasingly likely that Limerick-based classical radio station Lyric FM, which has built up a comparatively small but deeply loyal audience, will get the chop – a potential development that’s caused dismay among its presenters, including Liz Nolan and Marty Whelan, and sparked a petition from angry listeners.
Ms Forbes wasn’t exaggerating when she said things have never been as bad as they are now. The worst part is there doesn’t appear to be even the faintest glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
The licence fee is due to be reformed, but not for another five years.
In the meantime, the Government is bluntly refusing to countenance an increase to the €160 charge.
Whether or not you watch or listen to RTE is besides the point.
Catcalls for it to be scrapped entirely are idiotic; whatever its shortcomings, it still provides the kind of news and current affairs that the majority of wholly commercial broadcasters wouldn’t touch, because there isn’t enough money to be made from them. This, in itself, is reason enough for wanting to preserve RTE.
The fact that a national broadcaster – any national broadcaster – should find itself in the position of having to scrabble around to raise extra money is profoundly embarrassing.
There was a further humiliation this week when it was revealed that RTE is to sell five of its artworks, including two commissioned from Louis le Brocquy in 1966 and 2000, at auction in Sotheby’s next week.
Axing radio stations and flogging studios and land is bad enough; selling artworks is like frantically searching down the back of the sofa for stray coins.
A number of reasons, some more valid than others, have been advanced for RTE’s parlous financial straits: the fall in advertising revenue (something that’s hit print newspapers even harder); the top-heavy, cost-inefficient management structure; the over-generous salaries of a select handful of presenters; the competition from satellite channels, Netflix and the internet as a whole.
A reason that’s rarely cited by RTE, however, is its own programming policy. How can you react with anything but despondency to the news that it plans to add yet another chat show to the three it already has?
Jennifer Zamparelli, Kathryn Thomas, Doireann Garrihy, Angela Scanlon and Stefanie Preissner have all recorded pilot chat shows in recent days.
One of them will be commissioned as a full series.
RTE is pushing the notion that the first female chat-show host since Miriam O’Callaghan is somehow a big step forward. Viewers, on the other hand, may feel it’s just more of the same old stagnation.