Friday 20 April 2018

RTE boss intent on meeting our expectations despite all the cuts

Noel Curran had to wield the axe as RTE's director-general, but he tells Peter Flanagan that the broadcaster now needs stable revenues if it is to provide quality service to licence payers

Noel Curran: RTE's director-general
Noel Curran: RTE's director-general

NOEL Curran has had a rough few weeks. The director general of RTE – the man in charge of the state broadcaster – is nursing a broken ankle and so coming to terms with the new complexity of what for most of us are pretty straightforward tasks.

It's a rude awakening for the normally active 47-year-old. Having said that, Mr Curran probably received a rude awakening when he became director general in 2010. At the time, the recession was in full swing and revenue was falling off a cliff.

Since then, RTE has been transformed from a relatively bloated beast to one of the tightest ships around. About €130m has come out of the cost base since 2008 and staff numbers are down by 500.

Even so, RTE as a company takes huge stick from the public and can seem to be under fire from all sides. People in general resent paying the licence fee, even more so when times are hard. Issues such as the Mission To Prey scandal and more recently, Pantigate, only provide ammunition to the broadcaster's opponents. Not without reason, taxpayers, and government wonder what they are paying for.

Four years into the job and having just been appointed for another four years, is Noel Curran the man to keep piloting RTE through difficult waters?

Those waters, while still stormy, have begun to calm a little in recent months. Businessmen like to talk about 'headwinds' when they are struggling. Well, if the headwinds in 2010-12 were hurricane-strength, in 2013 and 2014 they have been more like a strong gale.

Indeed, things have settled to such an extent that the company will report its first surplus for five years when it posts its accounts for 2013.

"We'll have a double-digit operating profit in 2013 and will post a first surplus since 2008 but I think the market has not shifted substantially," says Mr Curran.

"I think there has been some growth, but not a massive upsurge or anything like that. Rather, we are seeing stability and maybe some small increases this year but we are still a long way away from any sort of massive expansion."

Even so, that's a far cry from just two or three years ago.

"The last few years in the commercial market have been incredibly difficult and we have also had substantial reductions in public funding, €20m in total, so we have been squeezed on both fronts.

"For example, the financial projections for 2010 were minus €30m on the revenue side, but that number was still falling, so we had to take remedial action and we have reduced costs enormously."

When he was appointed as DG, the Monaghan native was known as a programming guy, having been a journalist and editor of current affairs at the broadcaster, as well as producing the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest.

Instead, he quickly had to become a cost cutter. He freely admits it wasn't nice, but makes clear it had to be done.

"I don't think there was a lot of fat in the system and all cuts were painful. The bottom line, though, is 500 people are gone and we have maintained our output.

"It's easy to cut jobs and cut output as well but then that's not an efficiency," he believes.

For now, it looks like the cuts have done enough to get RTE back in the black.

Still, no sooner does he get things stabilised than other potential problems start to emerge. Last year UTV announced plans to launch a TV station in the Republic, while the debate about public funding for RTE continues.

Mr Curran admits he was surprised when UTV announced its plan to set up here, but sees it as an opportunity as much as anything.

"They have come in under a section of the Broadcasting Act which doesn't require a lot of native programming. They have committed to an hour of news a day, but I'm not sure they will do much more than that.

"The bottom line is they are coming to make money. Having said that, I think they'll be competing more with the likes of TV3 and 3E and it will allow us to differentiate what we are doing from them."

The television side may be facing new competition, but it is RTE's own goals that have been more of a challenge lately. The 'Pantigate' row and RTE's subsequent payment of €85,000 in compensation to the Iona Institute and journalists John Waters and Breda O'Brien has caused a huge storm, with RTE firmly at the centre of it. Could it have been avoided? For Mr Curran, the nature of live television means these things will happen.

"We do much more live programming here than in the UK, for example. Most of the chatshows there are pre-recorded but Irish audiences prefer live programming,

"That means more risks and more mistakes.

"If you are going to put a range of live programming for chatshows on Friday and Saturday for two hours, then you are in different territory to the pre-recorded stuff.

"In the last three years 'The Saturday Night Show' has only had one other legal case, despite 150 hours of programming. Similarly 'The Late Late' is in dangerous territory constantly but we do manage it.

"We need to learn the lessons but we also need to continue to be in that space"

The whole affair has led to calls for RTE to instigate a time delay on live events, similar to a seven-second delay employed by US broadcasters. Mr Curran rules that out for now, though.

"There are no delays at the moment and the level of mistakes and legal issues that we're having around those shows at the moment doesn't warrant that.

"You would consider anything further down the road but remember our audiences like the live format. Look at the way the UK do chatshows. They are very good but they are so sanitised. Irish audiences grew up with the live format on 'The Late Late' and culturally they expect it.

"There is a different expectation from Irish audiences. We have tried some of those recorded chatshows but they feel canned. The UK is different. I don't want to see us pull out of that space."

If TV has its problems, then things are a little calmer at Radio 1. Mr Curran is full of praise for Sean O'Rourke since taking over from Pat Kenny, and singles out Marian Finucane's weekend show, calling its performance "phenomenal".

Mr Kenny's departure to Newstalk caused a sensation but he has been the only big name to leave, despite RTE's tough negotiating stance on the fees being paid to its "top talent".

"I actually think the on-air presenters have worked with us in accepting these cuts and I don't care what your salary or fee is, if it is reduced by 60pc it is a lifestyle adjustment. People will say it should never have been as high in the first place but that's a different argument."

While Radio 1 has continued to perform well, the same can't be said for 2fm. Buffeted by the most competitive market in Irish radio, it has been swamped by a host of independent broadcasters, such as Spin 103.8.

Dan Healy was brought in last year to turn it around and to that end the station revamped its line-up this month. The DG is optimistic about its future but makes clear there will have to be hard decisions made if the station is not self-sufficient by 2016.

In his words, there will be "no scared cows" if 2fm cannot stand on its own two feet by then. The explicit threat of closure isn't made, but the message is clear.

The suggestion that more cuts may have to be made at 2Fm inevitably brings us back to the question of money.

The €130m in costs that have disappeared from the business included some €30m in state funding which has gone away. While Mr Curran and his team have worked hard to maintain programming on a much tighter budget, the goalposts keep on being moved and it is the Government that is doing it. When Finance Minister Michael Noonan announced that public funding for RTE would be cut by another €5m at last October's Budget, there was no consultation with the broadcaster. Mr Curran is clearly still sore about it four months later.

"We need stability, pure and simple, he says.

"We took costs out, got it back to a profitable situation for the first time since 2008 and with no notice we lost €5m in funding in the Budget. You are making assumptions in terms of costs and then suddenly you are €5m down with no warning."

The repeated cuts lead to a wider question about the public service broadcaster. Namely, is there a long-term future for it?

It is the closest Mr Curran gets to angry in the time we are talking.

"Look, we are prepared to make a commitment to costs for some kind of stability on public funding.

"Do we want a national public service broadcaster in five or 10 years?

"You need to ask if public funding is going to continue to be eroded because if there is no stability, one of two things will happen. You will lose RTE as a public service broadcaster or it will become more commercial.

"RTE is going to start chasing that commercial money and become more like a TV3 or UTV.

"Frankly, I don't want us to be a much more commercially driven station. I want us to have obligations and responsibilities but we do need stability," he adds.

One of those commitments will likely involve the new broadcasting charge. It has been roundly criticised because it encompasses all media, not just TV, but it is inevitable, Mr Curran says.

"As broadband increases and people access more programming through their computers, it's inevitable and other countries are moving in this direction. I think you have to broaden the licence fee beyond the TV."

Apart from causing huge embarrassment, Pantigate and the financial issues RTE has dealt with in recent times lead to a very basic question about RTE: what is the role of a public service broadcaster today?

In such a fast-changing society, should RTE be reflecting the values of today, of the "good old days", of what the Government wants? Something else?

"It has to be a reflection and depiction of Irish life and lives," he says.

"There has to be a representation of different points of view. At times we have been better at that than others but we can't be just holding a mirror on the world. We need to bring in voices that question the world and break new ground as well.

"Anyone can buy in programming – we need to do more."



If I didn't live in Dublin, the place I would live in is ...

Leysin, Switzerland.

If I weren't doing what I do, I'd be...

Living longer probably. And writing – of some variety.

The last meal I really enjoyed was...

Homemade pizza.

My greatest indulgence is...

Old books.

My favourite websites are...

I'm a news junkie so a host of news sites – Irish and international.

The best gift I've given was...

My wife would say turning off my mobile phone in the delivery ward.

My favourite piece of clothing is...

Anything that means it's sunny.

An unforgettable place I've visited in the last year is...


The last music I downloaded was...

Arctic Monkeys.

The books on my bedside table are...

Glenn Frankel's 'The Searchers'. Also re-reading Heaney and also Annie Proulx short stories.

What I like to do when not working...

Family, music, sport, hiking. Hence Leysin.

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