RTÉ revises cost-cutting plan after ‘very unreal’ year

Dee Forbes confirms 2020 surplus and defends presenter pay at Dáil committee

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes: ‘It’s not that simple to put together a two-hour show or be on camera for two hours.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes: ‘It’s not that simple to put together a two-hour show or be on camera for two hours.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

RTÉ is “still committed” to cutting its costs by €60 million over a three-year period, but Covid-19 has changed the way in which it will try to reach this target, the Public Accounts Committee heard on Tuesday.

“The make-up of how we do it will be different to when the strategy was published, because quite honestly, 2019 seems like forever ago, and the world has changed completely,” RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes said.

Ms Forbes confirmed RTÉ will report a surplus for 2020 after a “very unreal” year in which pandemic disruptions meant it did not meet its statutory obligation to spend about €40 million on commissions from independent production companies, while large costs such as the broadcast of the Euro 2020 tournament and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were deferred.

Its 2020 accounts have not yet been audited or signed off by the board of RTÉ, which recorded a deficit of €7.2 million in 2019 and €13 million in 2018.

The €60 million cost-saving plan, agreed with the previous government in late 2019, included soon abandoned measures such as moving Lyric FM out of Limerick and selling the RTÉ Guide. Executive board and top talent pay was reduced, while the broadcaster recently sought 60-70 voluntary redundancies. Proposals to cut pay across the workforce were rejected by its trade union group.

“There are a number of things that we had planned to do that didn’t happen for whatever reason. There are a number of things that have simply been delayed, or some things that just weren’t possible. But we are committed to saving that money in that period,” Ms Forbes told the committee.

“We will report a surplus in 2020 but that really is a very unreal year,” the RTÉ boss said via videolink.

Spending obligations

The impact of Covid-19, which saw RTÉ avail of the temporary wage subsidy scheme (TWSS), will have to be addressed over a two-year cycle, she said, with deferred sporting costs coming back into play and a requirement to eventually catch up on its commissioning obligations.

“Last year we underspent our commitment, so this year we have commissioned excess programming, if you like, to try to make up for that shortfall.”

It will, however, be “a challenge” to do this in 2021, with new productions affected by hurdles such as mandatory hotel quarantine regulations, Ms Forbes said.

“We have a production crew to come in from Belgium on an important Irish drama in June, and it’s proving a huge issue, both in terms of cost and availability.”

Ms Forbes also mounted a defence of the pay awarded to its top 10 highest paid presenters at RTÉ, who took home €3.2 million between them in 2019. The bill for the group dropped by 15 per cent in 2020.

“I am very conscious of it – we as an organisation are – but I think as well we have to recognise that these people play a very important role for us as a broadcaster,” she said. “It’s not that simple to put together a two-hour show or be on camera for two hours.”

Revenue payment

Meanwhile, RTÉ group financial controller Fiona O’Shea told the Dáil committee the broadcaster had made “an initial payment” to Revenue in respect of the self-employed contractors or freelances who were found to have “attributes akin to employment” in a 2018 review by law firm Eversheds Sutherland.

RTÉ subsequently offered staff positions to 81 people, 78 of which were accepted, but its previous practices have attracted a Revenue audit, with discussions ongoing.

“RTÉ takes its responsibility for paying taxes very seriously and has made an initial payment to the Revenue Commissioners,” Ms O’Shea said.