John Gormley: 'Home-grown shows and jobs cry out for TV licence reform'
For the past two Sunday evenings, hundreds of thousands of Irish people have watched a gritty crime drama centred on a Direct Provision centre. For many of these people, 'Taken Down' may be the closest they have come to being face-to-face with the realities of Ireland's asylum system.
For the last month, every Wednesday and Thursday night, Irish audiences have watched 'Finding Joy' and 'Women on the Verge', two different female written, produced and fronted comedies, two programmes responding to the public's calls for more female created and centred programming.
All of these programmes are made by the Irish independent production sector, and would not have been made were it not for Irish independent producers. However, when people think of the TV licence fee, they only see either the best or worst of our public service broadcasters. What they do not know is that there is more to the TV licence fee than just RTÉ.
Last year, more than half of the most-watched shows on RTÉ were made by independent producers. TG4 is even more dependent on our sector, with more than 90pc of its content coming from independent producers.
Some of RTÉ's most popular programmes, such as 'Room to Improve', 'Dancing with the Stars', 'Ireland's Fittest Family', 'Finding Joy', 'Ear to the Ground', or my own personal favourites, 'Eco Eye' and 'Ireland's Deep Atlantic', are all made by independent producers.
According to the Government's OSN economic analysis of the audio-visual sector, the television, film and animation sectors employ 11,960 FTEs every year, yield more than €234m in taxes and contribute €692m back into the economy. Creative industry provides high-end jobs all over Ireland.
And yet, despite all of this, RTÉ's spend on independent productions has halved from €80m in 2008 to €40m every year since.
This €400m in lost spend can never come back to the sector. In 2017, RTÉ's income was €338m and it spent just under €40m on programmes from the Irish independent production sector, less than 12pc of the station's total income.
And the station is under severe financial pressure. RTÉ continues to lose advertising revenue to emerging digital platforms, and TV licence fee evasion rates are high - currently, 14pc of Irish people do not pay their TV licence fee. Another 200,000 claim not to have a TV.
This amounts to more than €40m in lost revenue every year. There are only 46 TV licence fee inspectors for the entire country - little wonder compliance is so low.
Our message is clear: to ensure the future sustainability of the independent production sector, so the nation continues to enjoy the best programming and the independent production sector can continue to give the licence fee-payer the best value programming, we need substantial action on TV licence fee reform.
Radical thinking is needed. Politicians need to remember there is more to the TV licence fee than just RTÉ.
Screen Producers Ireland recommends we reform the licence fee, appoint Revenue as the collection agent and spend the increased revenue on independent productions.
There has been some movement to date on reform but not nearly enough.
In 2017, the Joint Oireachtas Communications Committee issued a cross-party supported report which recommended Revenue be the new collection agency for the licence fee.
The Department of Communications has set up an inter-departmental working group to review reforms which could increase payment of the fee.
While these actions are positive, without firm commitment, most importantly by the Communications Minister, nothing will be done. But there is hope.
Richard Bruton has only just been appointed. He can set out an ambitious plan and commit to engaging with the independent sector to reach a solution that is a win for our PSBs, our sector and the general public.
If public service broadcasting is to have a future, and if independent producers are to continue to produce high-quality programmes, our politicians in government and opposition must address this problem urgently, and with cross-party support.