Television forum focuses on fees and competition


INTENSE COMPETITION from overseas is an “immediate issue” for Irish broadcasters, as new technology fragments audiences, dilutes advertising revenues and leaves media groups in a state of “considerable volatility”, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has warned.

At a conference marking the 50th anniversary of RTÉ television at University College Cork on Saturday, Mr Rabbitte said preserving a “critical mass” of indigenous media, including a strong national broadcaster, was of “central importance”, and that people should be willing to pay for it.

“If media is important, and I believe that it is, we should be prepared to pay for it, and to ensure that sufficient critical mass exists so that it can be a stable and reliable source of media content.”

However, the Minister appeared to rule out the idea that a bigger proportion of licence fee revenue should be distributed beyond RTÉ or even beyond the television sector. Proposed changes to the licence fee were “not a solution to falling revenues” at other media groups, he said.

“It will not help to meet the marked challenges facing media policy if different sections of the broadcast and print media start to cannibalise each other rather than creatively responding to technological change.”

The licence fee regime is set to be reformed by the Government, with Mr Rabbitte’s department expecting that a replacement household broadcasting charge will generate higher income as a result of a more efficient collection mechanism.

Thomas Crosbie Holdings chairman Alan Crosbie has previously called for some licence fee income to be distributed to struggling newspaper groups, while Irish Times online editor Hugh Linehan told the UCC conference there should be no reason why traditional print media groups expanding into online video and audio should not be permitted to apply for funds from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Sound and Vision fund.

The conference’s keynote speaker, RTÉ director general Noel Curran, said RTÉ would propose a “fully costed” five-year strategy by the end of 2012. Mr Curran questioned whether the household broadcasting charge “could or should” allow for a “recalibration” of how RTÉ was funded and signalled that RTÉ was open to a debate on its place in the wider media sector.

“What would RTÉ give up? How far should it go in sharing content?” he asked.

The director general said RTÉ would set out clear commitments, including the platforms and devices on which its content will be made available to viewers.

RTÉ has cut its cost base by 20 per cent, or €86 million, over three years as it seeks to adjust to sharply lower advertising revenues, as well as lower licence fee income. However, the broadcaster is facing into a €57 million deficit this year, partly as a result of redundancy payouts.

Some 100 employees are leaving or due to leave RTÉ under its current cost-cutting programme, while the broadcaster hopes a further 70-80 employees will consider its voluntary redundancy offer under the scheme.

Mr Curran said RTÉ expected to break even in 2013, provided commercial revenues held steady between now and then.

Commercial revenues have plummeted from €245.5 million in 2007 to €167 million last year.

RTÉ television managing director Glen Killane said there were now “real concerns” about the impact of the 22 foreign-owned channels that sold advertising in Ireland. “It is estimated that they took €20 million out of the market last year and that is something that is worrying broadcasters,” he said.

The Department of Communications is understood to share these concerns.

“Broadcasters are effectively competing with organisations possessed of larger economies of scale than they can ever hope to achieve,” Mr Rabbitte said in his speech.

Mr Killane called for the Irish media sector to unite against overseas competition.