‘Audience of the future’ has better things to do than watch RTÉ

Home School Hub was a hit, but problem of how to reach youngest viewers remains

Alva’s World, made by Kavaleer Productions for RTÉ and Sky Kids, teaches children about online safety. Photograph: RTÉ

Alva’s World, made by Kavaleer Productions for RTÉ and Sky Kids, teaches children about online safety. Photograph: RTÉ

 

Before the sprinkling of celebrities could be shepherded on to the yellow furniture in Studio 5, RTÉ’s live-streamed season launch event began with a message from director-general Dee Forbes.

“Audiences in Ireland should be able to see themselves on screen, hear themselves on air and read about their experiences online,” Forbes said.

“That is at the heart of RTÉ’s mandate. It is what makes RTÉ distinctive from Netflix, Amazon and Disney, from Spotify and Apple, and it is why public service media is so important.”

But what if Irish audiences grow up without seeing themselves on screen very often – or, at least, not on the screen of an Irish broadcaster?

You would have a tricky time explaining the value of public service mandates to a four-year-old who has worked out the magic combination of buttons for both Netflix and Nick Jr, while a six-year-old whose media consumption is guided by the YouTube algorithm probably hasn’t dwelled too hard on the mix of accents they hear.

In 2019, RTÉ and TG4 “largely struggled” to meet their own targets for reaching younger viewers via both linear and on-demand platforms, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland told Minister for Media Catherine Martin in a letter sent late last year.

Martin’s reply, sent in June, acknowledges that RTÉ’s Home School Hub and TG4’s Cúla4 ar Scoil were “very well received” during the pandemic.

But her letter added that it was “disappointing for TG4” that its online initiatives Bloc and Molscéal did not help it meet its “very ambitious” non-linear targets in 2019. She goes on to quote this downbeat detail from a review by consultants Mediatique: the weekly reach of RTÉjr fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2019 among its target audience of 4-7 year-olds.

Kids have been born into an on-demand media world for quite some time now, so the deteriorating performance of a linear channel is not surprising. The actual figures are dismal reading nonetheless – the weekly reach of RTÉjr sank from 15.4 per cent in 2014 to just 10.7 per cent in 2019.

Reduced targets

Along the way, RTÉ’s annual performance commitments were weakened in line with these new realities. After 2015, when it hoped to grow RTÉjr’s weekly reach to 17 per cent and ended up missing by more than 4 percentage points, more modest targets were set: by 2019, the weekly reach target had been reduced to 13 per cent, but once again proved elusive.

No weekly reach target was even set for RTÉjr in 2020. RTÉ’s annual report only references one related performance commitment – to “maintain public perception that RTÉ devotes the right amount of time to children’s programmes at greater than 50 per cent” – and this commitment was achieved.

But it hardly seems like much of a win. “Public perception” targets relating to other aspects of its mandate were set much higher than 50 per cent.

Mediatique, observing the “steady declines” for RTÉjr, has noted that the old weekly reach target will be replaced with one “more focused” on non-linear modes of consumption, while the Minister has expressed hope that this “digital first” approach “can recapture this audience on their preferred platforms” – children are “the audience of the future”, after all.

But finding a more modern metric to calculate the size of younger audiences is not a surefire path to uncovering good news. Just ask the BBC. While it is “having some success in retaining audiences for its children’s content on BBC iPlayer”, according to UK media regulator Ofcom, “Netflix and YouTube remain the most-used services.”

Ofcom has been blunt about the consequences of “losing a generation of viewers”, believing that if the BBC is not considered part of young people’s core viewing, it “may be hard to encourage them to pay the licence fee”. The warning feels appropriate, and yet the better-resourced BBC is coming from a position of strength relative to RTÉ and TG4: in 2019, the weekly reach of the CBeebies channel among 4-6 year-olds was still an enviable 37 per cent.

In the RTÉ and TG4 autumn launch events, young people’s programming had its usual cameo role.

TG4 highlighted live action kids’ engineering show Na hInnealtóirí, life-swap entertainment series Mo Shaol do Shaol, nature series Timpeall Orainn and big-questions show An Bhfuil a Fhios agat?

RTÉ listed some 13 children’s titles, including timely animation Alva’s World (Kavaleer Productions for RTÉ and Sky Kids), in which Alva and her friends learn how to safely navigate “Gizmo” – a world that “echoes the internet with all its wonders and risks” – and comedy-adventure series Nova Jones (JAM Media for CBBC and RTÉ).

Space comedy

The latter sees intergalactic pop superstar Nova travel the universe “dropping out-of-this-world tracks and killer videos” and playing sell-out gigs to her fans throughout deep space.

But weekly reach and target percentages are not the only numbers to have decreased over the past decade. In 2008, RTÉ spent €16 million on children’s programming. By 2011, its outlay had eased to €12 million and in 2020, it stood at just €5.5 million.

The arrival of new funding and co-production partnerships means the cost to RTÉ of its children’s output is only one part of this story. Still, it does not make for an enjoyable part. Even in the context of its much-stated financial constraints, the allocated budgets do not scream priority.

And yet the solution to the problem of kids’ TV is almost certainly beyond the control of the public service broadcasters, who have been crying out for greater Government support for this and other parts of their remit. Ultimately, there’s no point having any audience targets, if you simply haven’t got the money to meet them.

If RTÉ’s future depends on RTÉ Player succeeding, then the RTÉ Player’s success in turn depends on how popular it is with children. That’s a daunting equation. Child’s play, this is not.

Amid the increasing might of Disney, Netflix, YouTube and others with billions to burn, a dispiriting question occurs: how much money would be enough anyway?

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