Cantillon: RTÉ caught between a Wocc and a hard place

Semi-state consultants NewEra have thoughts on who should make TV shows

Who makes the television programmes commissioned by RTÉ? The crude answer, based on 2012 figures, is that 24 per cent are made by independent production companies and 76 per cent by RTÉ.

Excluding the genres of news and current affairs, weather and sport, the ratio is 55:45 in favour of in-house.

The broadcaster has a statutory requirement to spend a sum each year on independent commissions, with this minimum hovering just below €40 million. But semi-State efficiency consultants NewEra believe “an alternative approach” should be considered. Its favoured model is the window of creative competition, aka the Wocc.

It's a BBC thing. For television, BBC has a 50 per cent "in-house guarantee" and a quota of 25 per cent that must be commissioned from independents. The remaining 25 per cent – the Wocc – is set aside for competition between the BBC and the "indies". This creates a formal competitive process, whereby commissioners choose the best ideas for the lowest costs.

Comparing the cost-per-hour of independent and RTÉ commissions is not straightforward, but the industry assumption is that the independent sector is more adept at keeping budgets down than RTÉ in-house, in part because it has been forced to become so.

Cost-per-hour for commissioned programmes fell 20 per cent between 2008 and 2012, as the NewEra report notes, and there is no guarantee, now the recession is over, that budgets will improve. Rather, what seems to be happening is that more independently produced programmes can be classed loss-making passion or prestige projects, or they are being co-funded by advertisers, who get involved not merely as sponsors, but at development stages.

There are many ifs and buts in NewEra’s report, and little analysis of how a Wocc-system might colour RTÉ’s public service mission. There is also something galling about the idea that the focus should be on outsourcing creativity – rather than administrative and support functions – to the insecurities of the freelance and independent sector.