How special are RTÉ’s ‘special events’?
Sports tournaments and elections just keep happening to the broadcaster
President Michael D Higgins meets Pope Francis in Dublin last year. Coverage of the Papal visit, the presidential election and the FIFA World Cup cost RTÉ €7.2 million. Photograph: Maxwell Photography via Getty Images.
Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic scores against England in their FIFA World Cup semi-final in July 2018, the fourth most-watched programme on Irish television last year. Photograph: Christian Hartmann / Reuters.
It has become a standard procedure for companies presenting their annual earnings to explain that they would have made an operating profit were it not for certain “exceptional items”. But when is an exceptional item truly an exceptional item, rather than a regular operating cost?
State-owned broadcaster RTÉ’s annual report for 2018 explains that its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) and crucially also “before special events” clocked in at €6.5 million last year. That’s great, except for one thing. Once the depreciation and amortisation part of EBITDA and those special events are taken into account, it made a loss of €13 million.
This was not quite as steep as the near €20 million loss incurred in 2016, but it nevertheless resumed the now somewhat normalised pattern of RTÉ deficits.
Two years ago, it cited its combined bill of €16.1 million for “special events” such as the general election, Euro 2016, the Olympic and Paralympic Games from Rio de Janeiro and the 1916 centenary celebrations as the reason for its financial position.
The story in 2017 was different: RTÉ made a surplus of €42.1 million thanks to the sale of land at its Montrose campus, which genuinely was an exceptional event – although one that perhaps has the capacity to be repeated in the future.
In 2018, it was back on the “special events” trail, with coverage of the Papal visit, the presidential election and the FIFA World Cup said to cost €7.2 million between them.
There is a solid political reason for RTÉ to draw attention to certain bills: broadcasting costs money is its message to the Government. A session of the Public Accounts Committee with RTÉ management last year revealed a basic lack of political awareness about how much it costs to make the kind of television viewers want. It does no harm try to show that public service broadcasting doesn’t come for free.
But while Pope Francis doesn’t drop in every day, and a centenary is by definition a once-in-a-lifetime event, it really should be much harder to label elections and men’s football tournaments as “special events” with a straight face.