RTE is worried. Its €441,000-a-year director general has warned staff that there are tough times ahead. But there is no sign yet that DG Cathal Goan plans to do a Carol Vorderman on his own stars such as Pat Kenny or Gerry Ryan.
Vorderman is one of the big names in British television. She had been earning £1.2m, or about €1.5m, for fronting Channel 4's flagship gameshow, Countdown. But then she was offered a pay cut of 90 per cent, and walked out last month after 26 years.
If RTE gave Pat Kenny the same deal, his income at the station would plunge from almost €850,000 in 2006 to a mere €85,000 or so next year. Gerry Ryan would take home about €60,000.
Of course, that is not counting those fat sums that RTE "celebrity" presenters can also earn outside the station for corporate work that cashes in on their RTE status.
Last week, RTE declined to reveal what it paid its big names in 2007, claiming that there are "commercial" reasons for keeping the information more than 12 months out of date. Compared to what some UK stars such as Jonathan Ross command, the amounts may look small.
But compared to normal public service salaries they are still very generous, and possibly much higher again in the current year. In 2006, Joe Duffy got €367,804, Ryan Tubridy €346,667, Derek Mooney €242,408, Miriam O'Callaghan €221,383 and John Kelly €204,675.
At least three of these -- Tubridy, Mooney and Kelly -- share the same talent manager. And it is not just pretty faces who earn more than regular public service incomes. Like other publicly funded bodies, RTE now awards management bonuses, contracts and promotions that were once not so available in the public sector.
After RTE won its battle for a significantly higher licence fee, this trend seemed to accelerate.
There was a time when RTE had fewer managers. The best days of Radio 1, when it commanded much bigger audiences than it now does, were driven by a small band of managers under the late Michael Littleton.
They worked closely with employees on normal public service salaries and lowly contracts. Programmes were quality-led, not celebrity-driven.
Moderate incomes keep programme-makers in touch with everyday experiences. Since then, like politicians, celebrity presenters have put a bigger gap between their incomes and that of the ordinary citizen than is good for public service.
On television, for years, RTE made its name with people like Gay Byrne, Patrick Gallagher, Brian Farrell and Olivia O'Leary, who earned money that was relatively modest compared to celebrity incomes today.
But then the ideology of public sector management changed, bringing with it across broadcasting and elsewhere a proliferation of initiatives and uneven payments that look more like private practice than public service.
It is easier for RTE to lash large sums at "celebrities" than it is to develop young, intelligent talent or to risk audacious and original programming. Does the station want to delight and challenge us, or will forthcoming programmes such as its three-part series on Bertie Ahern be just more of the same -- in that case, another over-hyped trawl through its archives?
Is RTE hungry for public service? Or is it now being held to ransom by talent managers and public servants who threaten to "go elsewhere" unless their demands are met? Will there be cutbacks in celebrity salaries and management bonuses at RTE now that advertising revenue is shrinking? Or will public service programming budgets be cut instead?
The big fear for RTE is that audiences will desert the station if their favourite faces go elsewhere. TV3 or TG4 might not afford (or even want) to pay Bryan Dobson the €193,610 that he earned from RTE as their 10th highest paid presenter in 2006.
And PR guru Bill O'Herlihy and his band of wizened sports commentators might not be irreplaceable. But what if Kenny, Ryan or Tubridy left?
And it is not just advertising revenue that is a problem for RTE. Station bosses worry that the growth in licence fee income is also slowing. This is despite the fact that the amount that each Irish household must pay for its TV licence has risen steadily in recent years -- to €160.
RTE blames the slowdown largely on the fall in the number of new houses being built. Fewer homes, fewer licences. But members of the public may also be more reluctant to pay the increased licence fee now that inflation is hitting harder. And soon, everyone will be obliged to pay for special equipment to receive even the "free" RTE channels.
Cynics suspect that RTE is playing the poor mouth, hoping to stop the Government diverting more money from the licence fee to independent producers. RTE had seemed to win that battle, with the Broadcasting Bill now in the Oireachtas failing to increase beyond 5 per cent the slice of the fee that goes to the Broacast Commission of Ireland's Sound & Vision Fund.
But a rearguard action is currently being fought to increase that share for independents, from one in 20 to one in 10 euros of the licence fee. RTE is concerned about the bigger picture. Recession has already begun to hit the TV advertising market, and that picture is likely to get bleaker. Most of RTE's income comes from advertising, (about four in every nine euros), so the station could be hit hard.
Across the water, even ITV is feeling the pinch. ITV is Britain's third channel, of which Ulster Television is the Irish franchise. In return for special privileges, ITV is obliged to make many public service programmes.
But ITV's executive chairman, Michael Grade, warned last week that it might have to hand back its public service licence and drop well-loved programmes such as The South Bank Show.
ITV would then become just another wholly commercial station among many.
And that is part of the problem. There are so many stations now that it is getting harder and harder for any one to make a profit.
And what money they do have tends to be mopped up in bidding wars for popular American sitcoms, movies or sporting rights.
That leaves less and less for investment in high-cost current affairs, drama or feature programming.
On top of trying to continue to fund its present operations, RTE is now expected by the Government to go digital out of its present funds, launching new channels with no extra money.
An Irish film channel is also promised by the Minister for Communications, but there is no more cash set aside for that either.
Meanwhile, TG4 continues to be funded only on a grace and favour basis from year to year by the Minister for Finance, receiving a far higher amount of public monies than its audience share merits proportionately.
The one area where more money is promised is for a new Oireachtas TV channel, on the new Digital Terrestrial Television system. Oireachtas TV is likely to have tiny audiences unless the Dail radically changes both the way it does business and the frequency with which it does it.
The battle for broadcasting is hotting up just as the economy cools down. Ireland has promised the EU to clarify RTE's public service remit and to make RTE accounts more transparent before the end of 2008.
But as he attempts to get his Broadcasting Bill through the Dail, Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan may find that public service broadcasting has become a very flexible term for the managers and celebrity presenters of RTE.