RTÉ staff to stay in Donnybrook ‘for now’ but land sales possible

Director general Dee Forbes signals mandatory sign-in for RTÉ player

Dee Forbes: ‘The licence fee system is broken, but it is fixable’

Dee Forbes: ‘The licence fee system is broken, but it is fixable’

 

RTÉ director general Dee Forbes has signalled major reforms during staff meetings on Thursday, including the possibility of further land sales by the broadcaster and reforms to the RTÉ player platform.

Ms Forbes was addressing staff at the broadcaster about an upcoming programme of cutbacks and job losses.

She signalled reforms to the RTÉ player, including making sign-in mandatory for the streaming service. She criticised what she said was a loophole in the law where the player can be accessed without a user paying a licence fee.

She told the meeting that the broadcaster will stay in Donnybrook “for now”, but added that further land sales were a possibility.

The meeting took place in a studio at the broadcaster’s Montrose headquarters, and was screened on televisions elsewhere on the RTÉ campus for those who could not attend the meeting.

Ms Forbes opened by giving a survey of the broadcaster’s current financial situation, as well as background information on how RTÉ’s finances deteriorated to their current level.

She reiterated the broadcaster’s belief that the future of RTÉ is dependent on reform of the licence fee system. She said if the envisaged programme of cuts and reforms is pushed through, the station will break even. But she warned that it cannot continue to fund a deficit. “We’re doing this to ensure that RTÉ has a future... we’re doing this because nobody else will.”

The broadcaster is also moving to introduce a new product called “RTÉ Experiences”, she said, which will aim to bring the station’s “best loved” productions on the road for ticketed events.

Ms Forbes addressed the future of classical station Lyric FM, which is not being shut down, but is moving from its current broadcasting base in Limerick to Dublin and Cork. However, she emphasised that the broadcaster is maintaining a news operation in the city, and is not abandoning either Limerick or Lyric FM.

Digital offering

She also addressed the station’s intention to close down its digital audio offering, which has been in place for 10 years. She told staff that it was a trial programme, but that the broadcaster is not in a position to underwrite the cost of something that has no clear future.

She said staff in the RTÉ Guide, which is for sale, will no longer be eligible for voluntary redundancy if they are transferred out of the organisation alongside the title.

The cost-cutting plan, which involves about 200 job cuts and a 15 per cent pay reduction for highest-earning presenters, is part of a financial restructuring to save €60 million over three years. Senior figures in the organisation say the “staff headcount reduction” is needed by the end of 2020.

An indefinite pay freeze will be introduced for all staff apart from senior management, who will take a 10 per cent pay cut. It is expected the role of all staff will be reviewed to ascertain if people can be better deployed. Staff benefits will be reviewed and work practices reformed.

The National Union of Journalists secretary Séamus Dooley however said the proposal for an indefinite pay freeze for lower-paid staff would not be accepted,

RTÉ’s executive had planned on revealing details of job and pay cuts this week, but deferred the announcement following the death of Gay Byrne. However, the news broke on The Irish Times on Wednesday night.

Ms Forbes told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland on Thursday that it was “regrettable” to be in this position, but that her priority was to maintain public service broadcasting in Ireland.

Licence fee system

Ms Forbes said she had planned to announce the details to staff first and it was regrettable that the details had been leaked before that could happen.

“There was no plan to keep staff in the dark,” she said.

The director general added that the key funding mechanism for the station, the television licence, had been broken for many years.

“The licence fee system is broken, but it is fixable. That has been done in other countries. RTÉ will not have a future unless the Government fixes the licence fee structure.”

Ms Forbes said she is calling on the Minister for Communications Richard Bruton to review the timeline of five to seven years for a review of the licence fee. “That’s too long. The crisis in public service media is now.

“This is not about giving RTÉ a pot of money. This system has been in place since before the iPad existed. The Government are the creators of the licence fee, it is up to them to organise a sustainable public broadcasting service. It is about more than just television and radio.”

She pointed out that many of the fee contracts for staff were put in place at a different time. “We simple cannot afford to continue to pay them.”

Introducing a 15 per cent pay cut for the top earners is part of a suite of measures she said. The 200 jobs to be cut will be on a voluntary basis and a large portion of them will include the RTÉ symphony orchestra moving to the control of the National Concert Hall.

The station is changing course and “looking at the direction we have to go in.”

She said there was a need to engage with younger audiences who want services on their own terms, she said. The pace of change around viewing habits is unprecedented and “at a rate that we didn’t expect it to be.”

Two problems

Mr Bruton, in a statement, said RTÉ must transform and evolve to remain vibrant in fulfilling their crucial role into the longer term.

“This is a period of profound challenge for our established media - be they public service broadcasters or the wider network of local and national media. Audiences are transitioning away from traditional platforms and are increasingly accessing content online through digital mediums.

“This has meant that RTÉ have not been able to grow their commercial revenue since 2014, even though costs have grown by €28m during that time. Even though, licence fee revenue has risen by €10m over the period, this has not prevented the emergence of a growing deficit,” he said.

He added that the licence fee has had two problems - evasion and the need for a different definition of the device that triggers payment. “The government have accepted the recommendations of the Working Group on the Future Funding of Public Service Broadcasting and is putting the TV licence fee collection out to tender for a five year contract which will incentivise investment in the system of collection and reduce the evasion level from its current rate of 12.83 per cent. The government has also committed to developing a device independent charge to come into effect after this period,” Mr Bruton said.

The cost cutting plan developed by RTÉ was now being assessed “and I will continue to engage with RTÉ”, he added.