Editorial: 'Playing with ire as licence becomes household charge'
The rapidly changing ecosystem of media has left broadcasters, publishers and governments spinning to keep apace.
Such is the frenetic backdrop against which Communications Minister Richard Bruton has announced the introduction of "a device independent broadcasting charge" to replace the TV licence. It is the kind of bold move borne of desperation which would probably have prompted Sir Humphrey, in 'Yes Minister', to react with: "How very courageous, minister..."
The Government hardly needs reminding of just how incendiary the introduction of household charges of any kind has been. The water charge fiasco is the most scarring example to date.
Ever since a brave new world of streaming freed viewers from the tyranny of TV schedules and opened up a universe of choice, broadcasters have had to reinvent themselves.
A growing number of households gave up on conventional terrestrial TV, satellite or overpriced cable packages. Persuading them to stump up now because they watch something on a phone, tablet or laptop could be hugely problematic.
Pat Rabbitte came up with the idea as communications minister as far back as 2013.
The obvious difficulty is that those who felt no compulsion to pony up for a TV licence, may be even less inclined to do so for the "independent device charge". The Government felt it had to do something. RTÉ, like every terrestrial station, is on the ropes commercially. Yet the Montrose broadcaster received €189.1m in licence-fee income in 2018. Even then, its director general Dee Forbes noted in its annual report that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland had recommended it should get another €30m immediately.
RTÉ enjoys a dominant position in terms of generating advertising revenue.
Other media will also ask why it should be given special treatment in relation to funding, given its potential revenue streams.
True, it has a public service remit which merits support. Nonetheless other media also carry the obligation to serve the public interest without any State support, while also having to see off foreign competition. Traditional models have been blown away as competition for the attention of the masses was weaponised by online innovation.
Thus while there are challenges, there are also opportunities. The old broadcasting model 'by appointment', where a central provider curates content to be distributed and dictates the schedule based on the general target audience, has been turned on its head. By early 2018 in the UK, digital streaming overtook traditional television for the first time.
As somebody once said, people are sheep and TV is their shepherd. In the digital age, corralling them back into the fold will not be as easy as it once was, in an age of limitless options. An overhaul of the TV licence was certainly overdue, but the market has its own way of ordering or disordering things. Governments can devise charges, but the consumer is king.