RTÉ faces cuts unless it is given more funding, Curran warns

Outgoing DG says broadcaster unable to solve ‘structural’ problems on its own

Noel Curran at Dublin City University: he noted that three consecutive recommendations by the BAI that RTÉ’s public funding should be increased have been ignored. Photograph: Eric Luke

Noel Curran at Dublin City University: he noted that three consecutive recommendations by the BAI that RTÉ’s public funding should be increased have been ignored. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

RTÉ will have to cut back its services and restructure the organisation over the next few years unless the Government takes action on its funding, its outgoing director general Noel Curran has warned.

In his last major speech before stepping down, Mr Curran told an audience at Dublin City University (DCU) the broadcaster faced “persistent and structural problems” that it could not solve on its own.

“I’d love to be standing up here telling you that all of RTÉ’s funding challenges are over and we can all just look ahead and concentrate on programming. Until our public- funding model is changed, that will not be the case,” he said.

RTÉ was “not looking for a free ride” but needed more money to pay for responsibilities laid down by statute, he said.

The regulation of public service broadcasting in Ireland is broken, Mr Curran also said during the public lecture organised by DCU’s Institute for Future Media and Journalism.

Three consecutive recommendations by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) that RTÉ’s public funding should be increased have been ignored, he noted, with public funding instead cut by more than €15 million since he became director general in 2010.

“The BAI is not at fault. It is doing its job. But either the BAI has to be listened to or the legislation has to be changed. Anything else makes the process invalid.”

RTÉ is heading into a new five-year planning cycle, as it is obliged to do under the legislation, “without any meaningful response to the first one”.

Media policy must be guided by a body independent of government, Mr Curran said. “It is very difficult to see how a public media organisation like RTÉ, doing its job in an election campaign, is not going to ruffle some political feathers.”

He said he could not remember an election campaign as “complicated and tricky” as the one just passed.

Friction

“Times of political and societal stress inevitably lead to more friction with all sides, including whoever is in government.”

RTÉ was not seeking an increase in the amount paid by households but the replacement of the licence fee by a publicservice broadcasting charge, a change proposed and deferred twice by the last government. The charge would apply to all households in the country, regardless of whether they own a television set, and was expected to cut down on licence- fee evasion, which according to Mr Curran is responsible for more than €40 million in lost funding every year.

Mr Curran also said legislation that exempted satellite and cable providers such as Sky and Virgin Media from paying for the retransmission of Irish channels was “unacceptable”, while the impact of “content dumping” from UK television channels that take as much as €50 million in advertising from the Irish market while investing “little or nothing” in Irish programming was distorting the wider media market.

He identified the fragmentation of audiences across platforms as another “storm cloud” ahead for all content producers in Ireland. It was a “conundrum” for RTÉ and all media companies that commercial income from digital “remains a fraction of our overall commercial income”.

Commercial media

maze Revenue

from video-on-demand advertising fell in the first three months of 2016, he noted. Navigating the commercial media “maze” was now “even trickier than last year”.

During his time at RTÉ, Mr Curran oversaw a financial turnaround at the broadcaster as it battled with a multiyear collapse in the advertising market as well as public-funding pressures. After a series of deficits, it posted modest surpluses in 2013 and 2014. But 2016 is set to be a very expensive year for the broadcaster.

In a question-and-answer session after the lecture, Mr Curran said the next minister for communications would have a “huge opportunity” to support the sector. He said the BAI had to have a stronger role, and that decision-making had to be independent of politics instead of “this impasse where you can’t get past this morning’s Morning Ireland interview”.

A graduate of DCU, Mr Curran was giving his inaugural lecture as adjunct professor of journalism at DCU’s Institute for Future Media and Journalism. He will be succeeded as director general by Dee Forbes, the president and managing director of Discovery Networks Northern Europe, who will assume the role later in the year following a transition period.