Budget burners turn up heat on RTÉ


ANALYSIS:Cutbacks of €25m will take ‘unavoidable’ chunks out of programming funds

US IMPORT Homeland reached its thrilling conclusion on RTÉ Two last night with an off-screen cliffhanger, but will the second series of the acclaimed drama make it to Irish screens?

Under director general Noel Curran’s blueprint for a slimmer RTÉ, there will be less money for overseas acquisitions and even bigger reductions in sports coverage.

RTÉ has taken the scissors out to the tune of €82 million since 2008, but this latest €25 million plan marks a change in approach.

A recent agreement with the Competition Authority to change how it sells advertising has contributed to its financial woes. Both this commercial pressure and uncertainty about its future level of public funding will soon be clearly visible to audiences via screen cuts, as Curran takes “unavoidable” chunks out of programming budgets. Those announced this week will not be the last.

A turbulent 18 months, marked by internal whispers, goodbye parties and fractured morale, now lies ahead as RTÉ attempts to plug a five-year-old operating deficit set to reach €20 million this year. There may, at the end of it all, be the odd spare million left for reinvestment in technology.

It is clear that news and current affairs, having spent the last six months beset by scandal, won’t escape the hurt.

RTÉ employs separate Irish-language reporting staff for Nuacht and Raidió na Gaeltachta, while TG4 also runs a separate news department. Some rationalisation is to be expected here, though there are promises that output levels will be maintained.

Shutting down the London office reflects a wider media trend – what used to be seen as necessary facilities are now considered expensive luxuries by management.

Two of the five people based in London are news staff, and while it is currently assessing its options, it seems RTÉ is 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.

The broadcaster is already adopting the same “take it or leave it” approach to its negotiations with sports bodies as it has with its highest paid “star” presenters.

To some extent, cuts in sports rights and imports won’t make a material difference to many viewers. An RTÉ without, say, Champions League football matches? Tune into ITV’s coverage or wait for TV3 to snap up the rights. A thinner schedule more frequently and cleverly filled with repeats? Annoying, and yet convenient.

RTÉ will want to tick enough boxes on public service output – news, children’s shows, arts and religious affairs – even as it strives to keep prized entertainment formats such as The Voice of Ireland on its schedules.

Maintaining a balance between pays-for-itself programming and mandate-satisfying budget-burners will not be easy in an austerity-bound Montrose.