Licence fee loathing unlikely to dissipate anytime soon
Plans for a household broadcasting charge will reignite the value-for-money debate
The process of converting the television licence fee into a household broadcasting charge seems set to deliver a festival of discontent over the next 18 months, peaking some time around Budget 2015.
It will mark an unloved sequel to the property tax, only this time the words “presenter pay” will replace “widespread negative equity and arrears” as the point at which defending the logic of the charge will get substantially trickier.
Announcing last week that he will shortly begin a consultation process on a Public Service Broadcasting Charge with a view to implementing it in 2015, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte made the case that public service broadcasting was part of society, and if you believe in society – “and some people, originating with Mrs Thatcher, don’t” – then everyone should pay, not just the 80-83 per cent of households who do respond to those An Post letters.
“But I don’t own a television” will be no longer permitted as a reason not to contribute to the pot – this is a public service broadcasting charge for the age of digital convergence, with a precedent set by similar taxes already introduced in Germany and Finland.
“But I don’t watch RTÉ” will remain an invalid, if understandable, excuse for not paying. “I don’t believe that people live in huts,” was how the Minister put it.
“But I hate RTÉ because it’s so right-wing/left-wing/religious/secular/ delete as appropriate” will also be an irrelevant argument as far as the Government is concerned, though for the Montrose-intolerant, it presumably isn’t.
Audience research conducted as part of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s five-year review of public service broadcasting funding did not, in any case, identify a pattern whereby people support the licence fee in principle, but quibble about the quality of the programming.
It was the other way around. “The market research tells us that Irish viewers and listeners are, on balance, happy with public service broadcasting output, but more negative about the ‘input’ in terms of the TV licence fee,” the consultants to the review, Crowe Horwath, concluded.
Their research confirmed “an inherent and automatic dislike” of the licence fee, while also detecting “widespread satisfaction” with the quality of Irish programming on both RTÉ and TG4, with news and drama scoring especially highly. You could almost call it a love/hate relationship.
Across a variety of programme types, from children’s shows to comedy to sport, the majority of those surveyed agreed that it was important to Irish society that licence fee revenues be used to support their production. Indeed, religious programming was only category for which more people disagreed with licence fee support (43 per cent) than agreed (28 per cent).
Intriguingly, the researchers asked focus group and survey participants to put their personal tastes to one side and think about what was good for Irish society as a whole. Of course, most television-watchers hate to put their personal tastes to one side and think about what’s good for the living room as a whole, never mind society.
Unsurprisingly, then, Crowe Horwath’s findings revealed “a significant generational gap” when it came to licence fee attitudes. Older audiences regarded it as “the price to be paid for Irish content on Irish channels”, but younger audiences, especially those aged 25-44, were “more sceptical”. This, the consultants observed, may be because Irish programmes on Irish channels make up a considerably smaller share of their viewing and listening experience.
If your preference is for Coronation Street not Fair City, Come Dine With Me not At Your Service, then paying a €160 licence fee/broadcasting charge is inevitably going to sting more.
The survey participants who were keen for public service broadcasters to make more and better Irish programming, but were unhappy with parting company with €160, rationalised “the potential contradiction” by (rationally) suggesting that changes could be made within RTÉ.
It all comes back to the thorny, perennial issue of value-for-money and the percept- ion of value-for-money. Unfortunately, both have been damaged by what the con- sultants describe as “the high salaries paid to a small number of employees for what is perceived to be very little work”.
But even if audiences accept the argument that a squeeze on public funding would shrink “the number and breadth” of much-watched Irish programmes, persuading them to say they love a tax is always going to be too much of an ask. Irish households may have to live with the licence fee and its successor, but the Government is going to have to suck up their resentment.