Thursday 5 December 2019

Dee Forbes: 'RTÉ must adapt to changing media world but so should model of funding'

Plans to transform: Dee Forbes, RTÉ director general
Plans to transform: Dee Forbes, RTÉ director general

Dee Forbes

This afternoon in the Dáil, TDs will debate RTÉ's plans to secure its future. It's a debate we welcome - but it's one that needs to be about the future of public service media, not just RTÉ.

Declining trust in institutions, and the prevalence of so-called fake news, means public service media has never been needed more.

And yet, at the very moment it is needed most, public service media is also facing a series of major disruptions - to the way audiences consume content, as well as to the way it is funded.

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That's why last week we set out a plan to transform RTÉ, to secure public media for the future, and to put the organisation on a sound financial footing.

RTÉ is not alone in facing difficult challenges - INM, 'The Irish Times', the 'Irish Daily Mail' and Virgin Media have all been forced to shed staff in recent months.

Getting RTÉ to a financially sustainable position means some painful decisions and changes - these proposals that have generated many column inches. But some facts have been missing from some of the commentary.

Every week 94pc of Irish citizens use one or more of RTÉ's services, the most popular TV, radio and online services in the country.

We remain one of the most trusted organisations in the country - 81pc of people consider RTÉ to be an important part of Irish life. And all for 44 cents a day per household.

There's another currency that's key to RTÉ's success too: ideas. When the historians look back on 2019, it will likely be remembered as the year the world's young people seized the agenda on climate action.

Inspired by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, students walked out of classrooms around the world and on to the streets, demanding older generations do something to protect the planet for generations to come.

All this week, on radio, on TV and online, we've been examining different aspects of the climate crisis - from reporting inside the Arctic Circle on the ice melt, to exploring the difficult choices we need to make if Ireland is to become carbon neutral.

And tomorrow, a day after TDs debate RTÉ's future, Ireland's young people will take over the chamber of Dáil Éireann to debate the issues, and demand action in RTÉ's Youth Assembly on Climate.

This is the first time anywhere in the world that a country's young people will have moved from the streets to its parliament to challenge politicians directly.

In many ways, RTÉ on Climate is a glimpse into RTÉ's future. All week, teams across the organisation have been making programmes to be consumed on-demand through the RTÉ Player and on social media, as well as on RTÉ's radio and television services.

We owe younger audiences an RTÉ that can champion Irish culture and captivate with trusted, engaging and challenging output. As an English-speaking market (alongside a vibrant Irish-language sector), audiences in Ireland are arguably among the best served on the globe. With the UK to one side, the US to the other, non-domestic media penetration offers Irish people immediate choice and easy access to a world of content. It is in that context that RTÉ, a small national broadcaster, competes against the best-funded media giants in the English-speaking world.

But that's why, just as RTÉ is changing, the funding model that pays for public service media also needs to change.

Over the past decade, much of the commercial income that previously sustained public service media has migrated to global media companies, such as Google and Facebook. Over that same decade, the TV licence system, which underpins public service broadcasting, has become increasingly inefficient and no longer reflects how people consume media today. As a result, RTÉ's income is no longer sufficient to deliver against our remit, or fulfil our national role in the way that was originally intended.

This isn't just about us. RTÉ is the backbone of the Irish audio-visual sector, and the engine of the Irish creative economy. Without a national broadcaster, Irish cultural expression and the right of people in Ireland to access information from a domestic, independent public media - both intrinsic to our nationhood and democracy - is irrevocably damaged. Every country deserves an independent public media that challenges and delves deep. Last night, once again, 'RTÉ Investigates' shone its spotlight into a dark corner of Ireland's recent past, this time the scouting movement.

Every country deserves an independent public media that entertains and that supports the entire creative and audio-visual sector. RTÉ is continuing to invest in new drama co-production, as well as commissioning and piloting new comedy, programming for younger viewers, programming and content in Irish, as well as developing new voices and faces.

Every country deserves a free-to-air public media where it can see itself win - RTÉ is set to remain the undisputed home of free-to-air sport in the short term, but without a doubt maintaining that access for Irish audiences is a challenge that RTÉ will lose if the current funding gap persists.

Every country deserves its own public media, because without it something is truly lost. Public service media sits at the very centre of our culture and of our country. Irishness in all its forms is at the core of our individuality, and our vision of who we are, as a nation and as a people.

Yes, we need to change, and we need to innovate. And we are. Last month, for the third time in 2019, there were over 100 million page views to RTÉ News online, meaning the website will likely top a billion page views this year - this was once unthinkable. Yes, we need to evolve to better meet the audiences needs of today. And we must also find new ways to grow our commercial income, reduce our costs and invest in new technology. We know we have much work to do. But others do too. Without funding reform we will not be able to service audiences the way we should. The broader industry will contract. These services and these programmes will not be replaced by the market, and audiences in Ireland will be under-served.

Ireland is better than that. It deserves better than that.

Dee Forbes is the director general of RTÉ

Irish Independent

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