Broadcasting regulator gets blunt on public service media

Cantillon: BAI calls for ‘urgent’ funding boosts for RTÉ and TG4 likely to be ignored

RTÉ: home of a long-running funding drama. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

RTÉ: home of a long-running funding drama. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

 

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland is no stranger to advocating for greater government support for public service broadcasting, but its statement this week calling for RTÉ to receive €30 million and TG4 some €6 million extra in their annual funding was blunter in tone than usual.

In using words such as “immediate” and “urgent” and implying RTÉ and TG4 won’t be sustainable for much longer without some intervention, the broadcasting regulator has gone further than before.

Careful not to complicate its message, it didn’t expand on the form it believes this additional funding should take. But after years of endless studies and reviews, the possibility now suggests itself that it will take too long to reform the television licence fee in order for public service broadcasting to be preserved in its current guises.

It’s hard to see how a mishmash of other funding options available (though not palatable) to the Government on budget day could do the job to the tune of €36 million. Indeed, you wouldn’t bet on the broadcasters getting anything much in Budget 2019.

The timing of the regulator’s statement coincides with the completion of its latest yet-to-be-published funding reviews of both RTÉ and TG4, but it also comes amid heightened concerns at Montrose that RTÉ is being allowed to drift into a crisis.

It’s an odd predicament. With each passing year, it seems less within RTÉ’s power to commercially grow its way out of the doldrums – the media market has simply changed too much. And yet it can’t shut down some of the services it provides without the consent of the Department of Communications. To date, whenever it has tried to do so, there has been a backlash.

For its part, the regulator does not believe there are many cuts left for RTÉ and TG4 to make for themselves without jeopardising the essence of what they do (or are supposed to do). If it turns out that the Government is quite keen on the idea of downgrading public service media, as many suspect it is, then perhaps the time has come for it to say so.