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Thursday 21 November 2019

'RTÉ stars are worth as much as Taoiseach,' insists Forbes

Dee Forbes, director general of RTÉ. Photo: David Conachy
Dee Forbes, director general of RTÉ. Photo: David Conachy
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

RTÉ chiefs have rejected criticism from politicians of large salaries paid to the broadcaster's big names, saying they are worth it.

A number of ministers have said the cash-strapped station should not be paying TV and radio hosts more than the Taoiseach.

But amid plans for €60m worth of cutbacks, RTÉ's Director General Dee Forbes repeatedly insisted household names like Ryan Tubridy and Ray D'Arcy are worth it. They operate "in a very, very pressurised environment", she said.

At the same time, she warned the household names they will have to live with 15pc pay-cuts to help the public service broadcaster survive a growing financial emergency.

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Towards the end of what she described as "a very difficult day", Ms Forbes sat down with the Irish Independent to reveal:

:: RTÉ cannot afford to relocate away from its Dublin 4 campus;

:: Yet it will be forced to sell another chunk of the valuable site;

:: The broadcaster doesn't want an immediate hike to the TV licence fee - but does want it applied to devices with internet access;

:: And RTÉ One is likely to take flagship programmes like 'The Sunday Game Live' from its sister station, RTÉ Two.

"We had robust discussions," she says of a meeting held in 'The Late Late Show' studio hours earlier where senior executives were heckled and even jeered by workers.

Along with 200 job losses, RTÉ is to table a pay freeze, tiered pay reductions and a review of work practices.

"Our biggest cost in the organisation are people, and you would say it should be because we're a people-led organisation," Ms Forbes says.

"So as a result, given people are our biggest cost, it's an area we're going to have to look for savings."

Unsurprisingly, the news has landed badly but the boss, who has a salary package worth €338,000, says she is leading by example and taking a 10pc pay cut.

And then there are the 'stars'. According to the latest available figures, from 2016, seven familiar names - Tubridy, D'Arcy, Joe Duffy, Sean O'Rourke, Marian Finucane, Miriam O'Callaghan and Claire Byrne - earn in excess of the €207,590 once paid to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

They are to be hit with a 15pc salary reduction, on top of a 30pc reduction that was already imposed over recent years.

The Taoiseach has voluntarily waived some of his pay entitlements, meaning he actually gets paid at the 2013 level of €185,350.

While political figures were quick to express fears for the ordinary workers, there was little sympathy for the big names.

Business Minister Heather Humphreys said it wasn't viable for presenters to be paid so much, while Minister of State John Halligan replied "quite bluntly, no" when asked whether they were worth it.

But Ms Forbes argued that they bring both talent and commercial value.

"Let's be honest, these people work incredibly hard," she said. "I'm not saying the Government don't but you know they do work incredibly hard in a very, very pressurised environment and in a competitive environment."

This view was backed up by RTÉ's director of strategy Rory Coveney, a brother of the Tánaiste, who said there are "lots of professions and lots of sectors where people get paid more than politicians".

"There aren't many parts of Irish life, with the exception of people who have lost jobs, where people are taking close to a 45pc pay cut. Notwithstanding the fact they are well paid for what they do," he said.

RTÉ has already bailed itself out to some extent with the sale of nine acres of land on to Cairn Homes for €107.5m. It is now likely a chunk of the remaining 24 acres on the Stillorgan Road will be sold.

Senior figures investigated the possibility of moving elsewhere "within the environs of Dublin" but concluded it wouldn't work.

Ms Forbes said buying a greenfield site along with construction of studios and offices would make a move unviable. "We simply can't afford it. So we've taken the decision to stay in Donnybrook, but to work on a much smaller footprint."

Already, steps are being taken towards consolidating a variety of departments into one 'integrated media centre'.

Mr Coveney expects that "probably by the end of this process we will be on 50pc of the land that we started on just 2017".

But what does it all mean for the viewers? Ms Forbes says RTÉ is "incredibly strong" when it comes to news and current affairs but this needs to be replicated in other areas such as drama.

On the television side, bosses want to "strengthen" RTÉ One and keep it as a place the whole family goes for 'appointment TV'. This means RTÉ Two must sacrifice live sports.

The second channel will be aimed at a younger audience and partly turned into a "shop window" for RTÉ's digital offering, with teasers for series that can be accessed fully online.

"There's a lot of learnings in it and no one has the answers yet. But there's no doubt that we need to have this much more strategically aligned relationship between on demand and RTÉ Two," Mr Coveney says.

He points to the success the RTÉ Player had during the Rugby World Cup, when 300,000 people streamed the Ireland versus Russia game on a Thursday morning.

"We had probably the biggest ever internet event in the country," Mr Coveney says, before adding: "And all of those who consumed on our player are exempt from a TV licence."

Almost in unison, the RTÉ chiefs argue there's a "complete mismatch between the system, and the reality of how people are consuming" content.

Ms Forbes says the licence fee system is "bleeding €50m a year" between evasion and non-TV homes.

Irish Independent

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