RTÉ swings into €7.9m surplus as pandemic sees costs plummet

Disruption caused by Covid-19 meant broadcaster avoided further losses last year

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes: Future generations deserve ‘strong, independent Irish voice’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes: Future generations deserve ‘strong, independent Irish voice’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

RTÉ recorded a net surplus of €7.9 million in 2020 after the pandemic led to the cancellation of major sporting events and also saw the broadcaster miss its statutory minimum level of commissions from independent producers.

The rare surplus for RTÉ was confirmed in its 2020 annual report, published on Thursday, and follows a string of deficits in recent years, including a loss of €7.2 million in 2019.

Operating costs plummeted €30.1 million or 8.9 per cent to €307.7 million last year as spending on programmes dried up. Within this, the cost of “special events” – relating mainly to general election coverage – arrived at €2.5 million, much lower than they would have been if Euro 2020 and Tokyo 2020 had gone ahead last summer.

RTÉ missed its independent commissions target last year by €3.7 million after Covid-19 disrupted production activity for several months. It is now required to catch up on this spending.

But despite the second-quarter collapse in advertising income as the Covid-19 crisis unfolded, the State-owned broadcaster’s total revenue declined by just €11 million or 3.2 per cent last year, coming in at €331.1 million.

This followed a drop of €11.3 million in commercial revenue, which was down 7.8 per cent for the year at €134.5 million.

The commercial fall was partially mitigated by Government spending on Covid-19 public health ads, particularly in radio, where spot advertising revenue actually rose 4.3 per cent last year. Government spend accounted for 21 per cent of radio spot revenues in 2020 compared to 9 per cent in 2019, RTÉ said. Overall radio trading declined 3.4 per cent as promotions and sponsorship revenues were hit by the pandemic, while television revenues fell 8.1 per cent.

However, RTÉ said the “very high audience levels” generated by news and other programmes from March onwards had seen advertising clients allocate more of their budgets to its television channels in the latter part of the year.

Licence fee income received by RTÉ last year came to €196.6 million, up €0.3 million on 2019.

The broadcaster noted that this increase in its public income fell well short of the €9.2 million extra sum it received last year from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection in respect of free television licences.

The benefit of this additional money – a further part-reversal of funding cuts implemented in successive Government budgets – was effectively “eradicated” by a decline in licence fee sales.

RTÉ, in common with other media organisations, also availed of the Government’s Temporary Covid-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) last year.

The broadcaster is currently undergoing a restructuring process that will see at least 60 people leave the organisation under a voluntary exit scheme.

As of the end of 2020, it employed 1,866 people, up from 1,831 a year earlier.

‘Acute’ funding issues

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes said the longer-term funding issues for public service media remained “acute and urgent” despite the 2020 surplus.

“For RTÉ, the achievements of 2020 will fuel the drive to ensure that the funding of public media is put on a firm footing. Future generations deserve a strong, independent Irish voice.”

RTÉ board chair Moya Doherty said the pandemic had led to “a renewed and more urgent conversation” on public service media funding.

“Our audiences showed us, perhaps more clearly than ever, what they value and what they need from their national broadcaster. We will continue to evolve and adapt to meet that need, and will build stronger once the crisis has passed to ensure that our long patience as a nation has its just reward.”

The annual report confirms that members of the RTÉ board, including Ms Doherty, waived their fees in 2020, a move that was agreed in late 2019 as RTÉ proposed a series of measures to alleviate the financial pressures on the organisation. There are currently four vacancies on the board.

RTÉ’s most senior executives took a 10 per cent pay cut, with Ms Forbes’s basic salary falling to €225,000 as a result. Her total remuneration, including retirement benefits, last year was €306,000, down from €338,000.