Inside RTÉ: A view from the boardroom
Public service broadcaster requires income stability to do the job we need it to do
Last year’s Late Late Toy Show. RTÉ guarantees Irish children hear Irish voices on programming designed for them. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Ireland’s public service broadcaster, RTÉ, faces stark choices as commercial income continues to slide and the licence fee remains static, with prospective revenue already diminished by evasion figures among the highest in Europe.
In response, RTÉ’s director general Dee Forbes has outlined a harsh menu of cuts and changes to address a litany of challenges that for me, are all too familiar: media market and advertising problems that grow ever more complex; hard choices internally on what to change, what to cut, what to grow; and government disinterest in addressing in any realistic way, an ongoing, destabilising funding nightmare.
I served as a non-executive board member at RTÉ between 2009 and 2014, appointed right after the recession hit and as RTÉ was slammed with the worst financial challenges it had faced up until then. (Now, it is even worse.)
All the issues remain the same, including, disastrously, successive governments’ failure to act, while inevitably, pontificating about the need for changes that the organisation cannot fund without actual investment. More high-quality television? A single hour of a costume drama costs about €500,000 to produce, while CGI can add a few million. Attract a younger audience? Digital services have just been slashed due to funding shortfalls.
While individual ministers have been supportive, successive governments have ignored recommendations or backpedaled on promises. As a result, staff and salary cuts unavoidably hit morale, deplete expertise and burden remaining employees with extra responsibilities. Lack of finances stall hopes to bring RTÉ’s ageing studios and equipment up to modern digital standards.
Despite strong public feeling that its most high-profile stars are overpaid, individuals have been lured away to other broadcasters, suggesting RTÉ has to pay enough to compete in a broader market that includes the UK and US. And yes, salaries were already cut, with more reductions on the cards.
In my years on the board, RTÉ also looked ahead, undergoing a major structural reorganisation, introducing a shift towards a more comprehensive digital strategy, launching the RTÉ Player and apps, committing to and expanding children’s television and digital offerings. Like every media organisation, RTÉ strove to find ways to engage a younger audience that now primarily consumes content digitally.
I am sure the current board has these same dilemmas topping the monthly board agenda. Pundits and politicians demand more successful output, but offer few viable solutions to these global media problems, while pointing to random successes from better funded or commercial broadcasters.
It is right to demand that RTÉ find ways to meet as well as anticipate audience needs, within budget.
But RTÉ remains significantly underfunded in overall budget terms compared to most European public service broadcasters, even in direct comparison with countries of similar population. These either have higher licence fees, direct contributions from the state, and/or less competition for advertising.
RTÉ faces unique challenges. No other small-nation broadcaster sits between two vast, well-funded same-language media markets, one of which (the US) produces the majority of the world’s costliest commercially successful programmes, and the other (the UK), has the world’s leading (and well-funded) public service broadcaster, the BBC.
Irish consumers are thus spoiled for choice for good – but non-Irish – content.
And that is why public service broadcasting, with income stability, is so important and must be recognised as a broad media and cultural service, not a “television” service funded by a “television” licence (for at least a decade, RTÉ boards have recommended the term be changed).
The public broadcasting remit isn’t about aiming only for commercially popular drama or specials, or news and current affairs, though these are important. It mandates meeting the needs of audiences that won’t be addressed by commercial options. That means RTÉ guarantees Irish children hear Irish voices on programming designed for them. In supporting TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta, RTÉ stands as a critical bulwark in supporting the Irish language and its speakers. And Lyric FM is a national hub (with a growing audience) for classical, jazz and traditional music, as well as the arts. RTÉ is also a home for Ireland’s national performing groups (with however, a questionable decision to rehome the National Symphony Orchestra).
Many people complain that they don’t want to pay a licence fee for a service they “don’t use”. But they do, directly or indirectly. And it’s not just radio, digital and TV broadcasting, but there are school music programmes, RTÉ-run and supported cultural festivals and events across Ireland, commissioned work and jobs across the independent creative sector, and current affairs programmes and long investigations that question authority, uncover wrongdoing and affect change.
Yes, RTÉ has stumbled and failed and must be held to account. But RTÉ touches all of society. It urgently needs long-promised income stability so it can invest in its future, and hence, Ireland’s own cultural, current affairs and media future.