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