Steering RTÉ through the most turbulent era in media history

Threat to public service media ’should not be underestimated’, says broadcaster

Noel Curran, RTÉ director-general,  in the recently-created RTÉ Digital area at Montrose in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Noel Curran, RTÉ director-general, in the recently-created RTÉ Digital area at Montrose in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


In the RTÉjr studio on launch day, there are milkshakes, puppets and hula hoops. Brendan O’Connor is among the grown-ups enlisted to read stories to pre-schoolers, while Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, dressed in bright colours, reminisces with RTÉ executives about the more innocent days of Mr Ed, the Talking Horse.

Noel Curran, father to two daughters aged one and three, predicts RTÉjr will make Christmas “a little easier for me this year” and says the channel’s advent has created “a fantastic buzz” around RTÉ.

Not every day has been a ticker-tape-parade day in the two years since Curran took the job of RTÉ director-general. Few developments at Montrose have had adult executives waving cards illustrated with sunshine and rainbows, as the RTÉjr shindig did.

The twin editorial scandals – the costly A Mission to Prey libel and Tweetgate – garnered the most headlines, but running alongside the investigations, resignations and Oireachtas committee hearings, there was a financial quagmire to climb out of, digital terrestrial television (DTT) to launch and a five-year blueprint for its future funding to complete.

Financial hurdles

“RTÉ has had a pretty turbulent 12 to 18 months,” says Curran, speaking to The Irish Times two days later. “Any one of those issues – the editorial, the financial, the strategy review, DTT – under normal circumstances would have taken up your year. To have all of them come together made things particularly difficult. But the message I’m trying to get across to staff is that we have dealt with each one of them.”

It’s not quite over. Lawyers for presidential candidate Seán Gallagher have been in contact about that Frontline tweet – “it’s in that legal arena”. There are still financial hurdles, not least of which is the decimated state of the television advertising market. Last Friday, the board of RTÉ had its first glance at the accounts for 2012, a year in which its deficit exceeded €60 million.

Much of this relates to the redundancy payments made in a bid to get as many staff as possible out the door, but the commercial revenue numbers are still unlikely to make soothing bedtime reading.

Next month, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland will pass along its recommendations on the future for public service media funding to Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte.

In RTÉ’s submission to the BAI’s review, it signals its willingness to “countenance things we have never countenanced before”, such as opening up its Montrose campus to technology and production companies and forming new types of commercial partnerships.

For Curran, the debate pivots on one simple question. “People are going to face a choice, as multinational companies increasingly gain a foothold, as audiences increasingly diversify, as commercial income remains uncertain. Do you want a national public service broadcaster or not?” he asks.

Content rationale

“And if you do, it’s going to have to be properly funded, particularly in the middle of a commercial recession. If there is additional public funding available, we have shown in the document to the BAI what we would do with that additional funding, and I have indicated publicly that we are prepared to look at our commercial funding – but only if there are comparative increases in public funding.”

There are a few big “ifs” in there. But the stakes are equally large. “I don’t know what will be in the BAI report and I don’t know what the Government’s reaction will be. But no one should underestimate the scale of the threat [to public service media].”

Earlier this month, RTÉ published a pre-emptive strike of a report it commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers that worked out that for every €1 it takes in licence fee income, it contributes €2 to the economy (€2.09 to be precise).

The report makes for slightly curious reading, and not just because it explains multiplier effects by citing the organic yoghurts purchased by Montrose employees at the nearby Merrion Centre.

It’s odd because its focus on RTÉ’s place at the centre of a creative industry matrix seems to suggest that the rationale for maintaining a strong public service broadcaster is an economic one.

Is it?

“No, the rationale for public service broadcasting is a content one. It has to be. That’s what public service broadcasting is about. Personally, it’s the reason I’m here. I’m interested in content. I think what the report was saying, what I hope it said, is that beyond that there is a wider economic impact as well.”

And though the PwC report highlighted that the licence fee is “comparatively low” (compared to other European countries with a licence fee), RTÉ is not necessarily angling for an increase in the household rate.

’Massive turnaround’

“There is a whole range of different things that can be done around public funding,” says Curran, citing potential adjustments to the BAI’s Sound and Vision fund, the option of higher-priced licences for commercial premises and the chance of a more efficient collection mechanism via Rabbitte’s proposed broadcasting charge.

Curran describes both the fall in headcount at RTÉ over the last four years from 2,300 to just below 1,800 and the €100 million drop in operating costs since 2008 as a “massive turnaround” on the state-of-play that greeted him when he first claimed the DG’s corner office.

“When I was offered the job [in October 2010], I was outside of RTÉ, and at that stage the forecast for the following year was a deficit of €6 million. And I thought, ‘€6 million, we can pull that back’,” he says.

“By the time I joined in February 2011, in my very first day in the job, I was told that the forecast for that year was minus €30 million.”

The slashing stepped up, and the deficit wound up at just under €17 million for that year. Breaking even, or thereabouts, in 2013 is now Curran’s hope, though the market is still “very, very difficult”. The DG gig has required far more proficiency with scissors than he could ever have expected.

Shouldn’t he be getting paid more than Ryan Tubridy for his trouble? (Curran is paid the semi-state salary cap of €250,000.)

He sighs. “Listen, the last couple of years have been challenging, but they have been challenging for everybody. I love broadcasting, I love the media, I love journalism, television, radio. I’m very much in that digital space,” he says.

“You get to be director-general, so I’m not complaining. I’m well paid.” The “overpaying” of its top presenters, meanwhile, “was our fault, not their fault”.

Bringing star pay closer to earth might be important for public relations as well as the bottom line, but crisis mode hasn’t blinded RTÉ to the need to make more strategic changes, including the introduction of the advertising-free RTÉjr (“a very big public service statement by us”) and the beefing up of quasi-channel RTÉ News Now.

Speed of change

“We need to keep moving forward. Even in the middle of a recession, you need to start thinking ahead, you need to start positioning yourself,” he says. “The temptation is to just batten down the hatches, cut, cut, cut. And you do need to cut costs, but you also need to follow where your audience is going and where the market is going.”

Where the media market is going, nobody knows for sure. Those frightened by the speed of change may be comforted by Nielsen statistics that show the average number of minutes Irish people spend watching television daily is increasing.

Those who argue against sitting still with a cup of tea, a biscuit and an Angelus-like glaze note that traffic to RTÉ’s mobile and tablet apps outstripped page impressions on RTÉ.ie in the first quarter. “That is phenomenal,” he says.

The challenge of making the transition to digital is “a shared problem” across the media sector, Curran stresses.

“The difficulty we all face in the digital space is that we’re in a commercial crisis; the advertising industry has not fully got to grips with mobile and everyone expects everything for free.

Different league

“In the case of RTÉ, people already pay,” he swiftly adds, “but elsewhere, people are equating freedom of expression with free content and the two are not the same.”

At one end of the spectrum there is “the massive democratisation of the media, which is fantastic”, with bloggers who are “not in it for the money”, and at the other end of the scale, there are “these massive multinational companies – huge companies – making fortunes”.

In the middle lie Irish media companies that are “almost expected to be giving it for free, and yet they have to produce the content”.

It is the nub of a lot of issues: tech giants such as Google and platform providers like BSkyB and Liberty Global are in a different league, earnings-wise,from the companies investing in content. Sky, which sells local advertising on 23 channels, is something of a bogeyman for RTÉ.

“Sky, they do some investments, but compared to what they take out of the country, it’s minimal,” Curran says. “They’re taking, we believe, more than €500 million out of this market. They’re absolutely huge.”

RTÉ’s competitors, however, look at their neighbour in the squeezed middle and conclude that its dual-funded model isn’t exactly helping them. Their stances vary – some call for greater licence fee top-slicing through Sound and Vision; all wish RTÉ would get off their commercial lawn.

Shifting balance
TV3 chief executive David McRedmond has described RTÉ’s deficits as illegal State aid, while the National Newspapers of Ireland group claims advertising on RTÉ’s website should be banned, as its online “land-grabbing” activities are “simply not appropriate”.

Curran believes the NNI’s argument is flawed. “RTÉ, like everybody else, makes very little in advertising online – like, very little. We are not the problem here. People access newspaper sites for wildly different things. They access it for the opinion, they access it for the named columnists. We are a very different service.”

As for the broader complaint that RTÉ is too big and distortive a commercial player, Curran sounds conciliatory and pragmatic. He notes that RTÉ would have more financial security and a clearer sense of purpose if a greater chunk of its funding was from the licence fee (or its replacement), not advertising.

“I probably haven’t said this as baldly before, but we are happy to see the balance of commercial and public funding alter. But we need some security.”

Shifting the balance in the other direction makes little sense, partly because commercial income, notwithstanding potential new revenue streams, is now so much trickier to come by and partly because this would dilute its public service identity.

“If RTÉ is pushed down that route where public funding is taken away from us, or just gradually eroded – which is what’s happening now every year because there is no inflationary increase in the licence fee – then you just push RTÉ more and more into the commercial space,” says Curran.

“You just push RTÉ more and more into the space occupied by TV3. And that means you lose more of that unique value of what a public service broadcaster offers.”

Each time Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte mentions licence fee reform, it sparks a broader commentary, often hostile, on why we have public funding in the media at all.

Yet, as the Minister frequently points out, the media business is not just any business, and no other media organisation has statutory obligations anywhere close to those of RTÉ.

The public appears to know it. “All of our research shows that while audiences will complain about elements of RTÉ, we have huge viewer loyalty and huge viewer trust. People turn to RTÉ, they turn to our output. We see that again and again,” says Curran.

On whether Ireland still wants a public service broadcaster “that does a range of things that no one else does”, he answers his own question.

“I think the answer has to be yes. And if the answer is yes, then you say, how do you properly fund that public service broadcaster? And we’re very open to asking what else do we need to do for that funding, and how else do we need to change.”

Return of investigative journalism
The first special report produced by RTÉ’s new cross-media Investigations Unit – giving the charity sector the undercover treatment – was shown last night. More is on the way. The unit replaced the axed Prime Time Investigates, which Noel Curran originally launched. “We are going to make mistakes. Anyone who is in the investigative journalism space is going to make mistakes.”

Relaunch of RTÉ News Now app
RTÉ Digital, headed by Múirne Laffan, will bring out a new version of the RTÉ News Now app in the summer. “It’s going to be much more mobile-friendly and it’s going to allow much more use of video – and video is where the digital space is going,” says Curran. According to research commissioned by RTÉ, 10 per cent of Irish adults use the app.

International freemium packages
Moving the merchandising and archive departments into RTÉ Digital “maximises” opportunities to create new revenue streams, he says. “We’re not going to introduce a general paywall internationally but we are looking at offering premium content to the international market. We have done research on it, and people are open to it.”

More presenter pay cuts
The cut in “star” presenter fees and salaries “will be closer to 40 per cent than 30 per cent by the time we’re done”, says Curran. There will be no more seven-year contracts. “We went into the negotiations not as a negotiation – we made it clear from the start that this was a management initiative, and in fairness to the talent, they recognised that.”