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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 30, 2012 @ 8:00 am

    Operation Transformation at RTÉ might be unavoidable, but slimming down is not going to be pleasant

    Laura Slattery

    Fewer imported programmes, even less sport and constraints on independent commissions – the financial pressures on RTÉ, bubbling beneath the surface throughout recent scandals, will soon be clearly visible on screen, as director general Noel Curran’s blueprint for the future takes “unavoidable” chunks out of programming budgets. Those announced yesterday – a 25 per cent slash in the sports rights budget and a 10 per cent cut in the budget for overseas acquisitions – will not be the last. “Additional target-led reductions” are currently being identified across all divisions: television, radio, news and digital.

    Cuts in “star” salaries dominate the headlines for two reasons: because they bring the saga of RTÉ back to the level of celebrity Schadenfreude; and because six-digit fees to presenters – some of them talented, some of them over-rated, some of them both talented and over-rated – are symbolic of the lunacy of the boom.

    But while it might be entirely proper to target the pay of the highest paid on-camera faces, there’s also off-screen remuneration to think about. As they sit down after Easter to discuss what Curran indicated would be “significant” changes to work practices, the group of unions at RTÉ will presumably be equally interested in hearing about the kind of sacrifices being made by the broadcaster’s boss class.

    In any case, the biggest saving in Curran’s €25 million plan comes from the €15 million expected to be generated by a new voluntary redundancy scheme, which this time around has a more attractive offer for staff who are members of RTÉ’s defined contribution pension scheme. The current redundancy scheme is more attractive for longer-serving employees who have defined benefit pensions. This scheme has been taken up by 170 employees to date and more are scheduled to leave by the summer. But personnel costs at RTÉ, which still employs 1,900 people, continue to account for half of its cost base. It is hoped that at least another 200 employees will drive out the gate.

    Meanwhile, as RTÉ Television’s heads of department prepare to make their case for which programmes should be re-commissioned for the coming seasons and which should be quietly axed, they will do so in an environment where any and all cuts will contribute to plugging RTÉ’s operating deficit, projected to reach €20 million this year. Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte made it clear to the board last month that it cannot simply continue to stay in the red, and so a turbulent 18 months, marked by whispers, goodbye parties and fractured morale, lies ahead.

    It is clear that news and current affairs, though it resides smack in the middle of RTÉ’s “core” public service responsibilities, won’t entirely escape the hurt. The broadcaster currently operates separate Irish language reporting staff for Raidió na Gaeltachta and the Nuacht programmes on its main stations, while TG4 also runs its own news department – some rationalisation is to be expected here and across its entire regional output, though there are promises that output levels will be maintained.

    The impact of shutting down its London office – which has the misfortune from its departing staff’s point of view to double as a prime rental property in pricey Millbank – is yet to be ascertained, though it seems that RTÉ is at least contemplating a future where British affairs are covered out of Dublin or Belfast. Curran will argue that these are “efficiencies” rather than retreats in coverage.

    Arguably, the potential ramifications of cuts in sports rights and imports won’t make a material difference to most viewers. An RTÉ without, say, Champions’ League football matches? Tune into ITV’s coverage or wait for TV3 to snap up the rights. An RTÉ without acquisitions of acclaimed series like Homeland, or indeed not-so-acclaimed series like Pan Am? Watch them on Channel 4 or the BBC or the internet or DVD instead. A schedule more frequently and cleverly filled with repeats? Groansome and convenient in more or less equal measure.

    With the squeeze coming on both its commercial and public sources of funding, RTÉ will want to tick enough boxes on public service output – news, children’s shows, arts and religious affairs programming – even as it strives to keep prized ratings bankers on its schedules. Entertainment formats like The Voice of Ireland and weight-loss reality show Operation Transformation have performed well of late, while both The Late Late Show and The Saturday Night Show boast appealing cost-per-viewer ratios. But maintaining a balance between pays-for-itself programming and mandate-satisfying budget-eaters will not be any easier in an austerity-bound Montrose, while independent commissioning budgets, already dented, are likely to be targeted again.

    One of the problems with cutbacks on the commissioning side is that you can never quite predict where your next hit will come from. And if you commission next to nothing, it will never arrive. RTÉ’s biggest ratings success over the past 12 months has, somewhat unexpectedly, been a sitcom, and an old-fashioned slapstick sitcom at that. Mrs Brown’s Boys, a co-production between BBC Scotland and BocPix in association with RTÉ, comfortably out-rated the Late Late during its second run. Curran will now be hoping that the show’s forthcoming third series is the only painful farce at Montrose between now and the end of 2013.

    • dail11 says:

      The one thing id like to know is how much money does RTE spend on English premiership coverage – the TV rights, the studio coverage, the pundits, the headlines on almost every sports bulletin etc etc. The English premiership is not essential public interest broadcasting. It should not be paid for and broddcast by RTE. It is adequately covered in almost every home in the land via Sky, BBC, internet etc. It really irks me that they waste so much money on showing a product thats readily available elsewhere at the expense of supporting and promoting Irish sports. How is that filling their public interest remit. So if they are looking for an easy saving its simple – cut all English soccer coverage, and if the market does exist for it let one of the private, non public financed, TV stations pay for it.

    • Rod Large says:

      RTE is a farce and a disgrace. Who is Noel Curran anyway? A jumped up producer whos claim to fame if ‘producing’ a Eurovision Song Cntest (an essential feature of any DG’s CV running a large organisation). RTE has an incestuous culture and always recruits and promotes from with in the clan. It is a bloated organisation with almost 3000 people running 1 1/2 TV channels ( 55 % of the network’s programming are acquisitions, most of them foreign). Why indeed do they feel the need to broadcast Englsh soaps such as East Enders, freely available on BBC in Ireland. Why are senior managers company Mercedes when they don’t need a car for work? Perks perks RTPerk land.

      The Minister of Communications should send in some people to sort the entire mess out from soup to nuts. Bring in some senior TV people from overseas who are not steeped in the clan culture and clean the stables out in RTE

    • myron says:

      I agree with the above comment by Rod, why the hell do I have to fork out 160 euro for a TV Licence? I dont even have RTE in my house (freesat box), I was in my folks house a few weeks ago and they were watching that idiot Brendan O’Connor, how much is he being paid, It leaves you shaking your head in disbelief that a talentless non entitity like that is occupying primetime. Why is there an irish language dept at rte 1 and tg4? Why do they need an office in London in this day and age? I see in the comment above that senior managers get company cars? I hope he has been misinformed I hope that is not true, if it is then it is an absolute disgrace, I agree also that it is a hideously bloated incestuous organisation, sack the lot of them.

    • RTÉ was run in bubble times as the country was — the free lunch had been invented.

      In the peak boom year of 2006, revenues rose €35m or 9.5% but excluding a pension fund windfall of €14.5m, the station only set aside €2.5m  – - 0.6% of revenues, for the rainy day. Some 65% of the combined surplus of €47m in the years 2006 and 2007, was from pension fund windfalls.

      Conflict of interest is often a strange concept in Ireland and in its annual report for 2010, RTÉ said it bought commissioned programmes worth €2.7m from companies that were owned or controlled by board members or their close family members.

      It’s certainly hard to adjust from boom times to more frugal ones and to rebalance the public interest and self interest.

      So RTÉ is going to have no correspondent in London but retain one in Washington DC?

      Viewers really need an Irish angle to the presidential election rather than using local American output?

      Conor Hayes, the finance head. told an Oireachtas committee in Dec 2010: ” To deliver our online service, http://www.rte.ie employs more than 70 people, including journalists, multimedia producers, web designers and technologists who carry out three principal functions. They originate and produce new content, adapt and re-purpose television and radio material that is suitable for online purposes and distribute content to our audiences on a multiplicity of devices including desktop PCs, iPhones, laptops, mobile phones and iPads.”

      Over 70 people would make a significant standalone media organisation.

      RTÉ claims that the online services are funded from commercial operations such as the ‘RTÉ Guide.’

      However, that can only be credible because there is no commercial cost put on the input.


    • ian carty says:

      rtetv has got football’s 2018/2022 world cup finals in russia and qatar this week

      english football premiership highlights should not be on rtetv but live champions league tv coverage should try to continue on rtetv with tv3

    • barb.ie says:

      I also agree with mr Large @2 above……….first paragraph, at any rate. However Mr Large is delusional if he thinks RTÉ’s “pet rabbit” will burrow significantly into the foundations of Montrose……..or whatever

    • KevZ says:

      Our national broadcaster is quickly becoming irrelevant and pointless to a whole generation of Irish people. We could all point to 1000s of youtube videos which are more educational, informative and entertaining than alot of the programming RTE create. All made for far less money than shows made for broadcast. Slimming it down and focusing on the important public service broadcasting won’t be a bad thing.

    • Liam Murphy says:

      How much is Mooney paid?.His radio show is the worst slot of the day.If he is not talking about womens underwear,gay issues,JedWard or Louis Walsh he is lost.His knowledge of sport is zero yet he keeps interupting the sports presenter with stupid comments.When there was a latest hockey score from the recent tourament held in Belfield involving Ireland he asked the next day what the final score was.He did not bother to look up,read or ask somebody who won.The wild life show on Fridays is good but for that know all Richard Collins.The nest cam is now boring same thing every year but at least it gives him a chance to keep saying the word Tits.Can i hare more for my €160.

    • arb.ie says:

      @8 Liam — Why do you listen to that? For goodness sake switch to RTÉ Lyric FM….”where life sounds better” and alternate between that and BBC Radio 4……..I assume you have controls…

    • Scrap the TV License says:

      Scrap the TV license fee altogether and let RTE sink or swim. Don’t let Rabbitte replace it with what essentially amounts to a “broadband tax”

    • Liam Fitzgerald says:

      Why do we need 3 ‘state’ channels in a country this size anyway. I can accept (and expect for my license fee) that we have one National Channel, with a public service remit that is based primarily on home grown or local talent and issues, including Irish Language programming. Surely this could al be achieved by merging TG4 with RTE1 and closing down the mainly foreign- and repeats-based and therefore redundant RTE2? The Online division should be run as a commercial entity not supported by license fees. If it’s good enough, it will survive, if not, welcome to the real world!

    • JOD says:

      The RTE ”New Year’s Eve” special was horripilatingly embarrasing to watch. Both shabby (I mean you could tell they were so strapped they could only manage a few ol tables and chairs and a group of self-regarding luvvies congratulating themselves) and boring (at least Niall Toibin had the decency to look thoroughly cheesed off as he had to sit there listening to the witterings of two hyper-active adolescents as midnight approached). It was the nadir of televisual productions imo. By contrast, TG4′s output such as I’ve seen of it is uniformly excellent (there was a superb show the other night on …dirt. As in soil. Brilliant so it was.). Now ”Prime Time Investigates” is gone, is there anything else worth keeping the show on the road for (asides from the always enjoyable and excellent ”Nationwide”)? We can watch all the tired US sitcoms and repeats online or on Sky and its legion myrmidion satellites? Certainly, when it comes to manipulating and pushing the agenda of whatever shower of satraps are in at the moment RTE is up there with Fox News but hardly good enough reason to justify a licence surely? I like ”Drivetime” but as for the Joe Duffy whingefest and him giving out patronisingly about the price of cola bottles going up or some such while this country’s gone to hell in a handbasket with rotten politicians rotten bankers rotten cronies rotten Elites and none of them ever come up for an ounce of broadsiding…nah. Give the money to BBC and ask them to boost their Radio 4 transmission so we don’t have to go to Cavan to receive it. We’re not a proper State no more we don’t need a flag-carrier airline why do we need a flag-waving tv station? Christ I’m in a right scorpy mood today and it so nice and sunny. In fact, it could be Cuba, only we’re nowhere near as well off.

    • BB says:

      speaking of Cuba (JOD @12 above) and different regimes, perhaps it is time for us to try another system of government……..or revert back to an old one…….as for example, High Kingship in Ireland. We need a strong leader now more than ever………Declan Ganley has the look of a High King………and he’s talking a lot of sense at this time…

    • Pat Johnson says:

      I’m nit sure whether it is the Luddite comments here or what is happening at RTE that is the more annoying and pointless.

      Yes of course RTE is bloated and totally out of touch with reality. Yes it has some awful programmes and some grossly overrated ‘talent’ but let’s back up and look at the context. First of all we compare RTE as a starter for one with the BBC and although it may also be a shadow of its former self and subject in its own market to precisely the type of criticism that RTE gets here, it remains one of the highest standards anywhere in the world and one of the best resourceds anywhere in the world. For reference have any of the major critics of RTE ever gone and watched TV output across the world, including the US. Do and you will coming rushing back home.

      Now I’m not saying that RTE should not be carved – it should, and I’m not saying that they should not be forced to use resources better; they should be prevented from blocking the market for sports, from hoovering up and then warehousing US and UK dramas for example. I’,m not saying either that they shouldn’t be called to book for being fast and loose with facts on the ‘investigative’ reporting where for every Lea’s Cross they got right there are as many reputations – particularly in business and politics – needlessly and irresponsibly damaged by pre-packed opinion and an absence of fact.

      What I would say is that none of those should be the basis of change. Noel Curran is an intelligent and thoughtful man. Most importantly, in my experience of nearly 30 years, he is his own man. That is important. Now is the time to step away from the table of vested interests – not all big interests but deeply vested for all that. Now is the time to imagine, and plan, a new RTE. An RTE in the context of multi platform availability of content, an RTE that doesn’t have to provide ‘television’ to the nation, and RTE that has to re-imagine the definition of public service broadcasting, an RTE that has to retain attention as an entertainer to have a relevance to deliver aspects of culture and national interest that will be lost if it becomes ONLY the broadcaster of culture and the national interest.

      What is certain is that we don’t “start from here”, we don’t “build on what we have” and we don’t “let the public decide”. Neither should we listen to the shrill comment that is based on begrudgery or envy. It needs a vision for a new future, it needs courage and it needs time. I trust Mr Curran, I would be less trusting of his Authority for many of whom the mirror is too comforting and I don’t think the political overlords and their non elected servants have engaged their thinking at all on the bigger picture. It is a challenge therefore for us all.

      Like so many aspects of our society, this is a fabulous opportunity to put the future on a sound footing… can we respond…

    • Karen says:

      Well this is coming all the way from Oz and let me tell you i had the very same opinion of RTE untill i arrived here in OZ… the television is shocking very old re-run’s of the brady bunch etc and that era.. 4 to 5 year old series of Grey’s annatomy and Desperate House Wives… for the state of affairs at home it does not seem so bad from here…

    • Macker says:

      Might the revamp be a chance to have more programmes in the first national language?

      RTE falls down here – b’fheidir go bhfuil deis ann faoi lathair do nios mo claracha tri Ghaeilge … ar RTE 1 agus ar RTE raidio 1

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