TG4 calls for major change to media funding as news industry seeks support

Oireachtas committee hears publishers are ‘struggling to stay afloat’

TG4 called for a major shift in the structure of Irish broadcasting at an Oireachtas media committee on Wednesday, while regional newspaper body Local Ireland said news titles needed "immediate funding" to survive the Covid-19 crisis.

TG4 director-general Alan Esslemont said RTÉ should be given the finance necessary to meet its obligations, but "the equivalent amount of funding" should be shared between TG4, Screen Ireland and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) Sound and Vision fund.

This “balance” would promote diversity and plurality in the sector and improve the regional spread of audio-visual activity, rather than maintaining a “monolithic” public broadcaster largely based in Dublin, he said.

“The biggest challenge facing TG4 itself in the coming years is to achieve what I call first-class national scale, to allow it play a role of significant prominence in Ireland’s ecosystem and create meaningful resonance in Irish society.”

In 2018, the last year for which figures have been published, RTÉ received 86 per cent of television licence fee receipts, a sum of €189 million. Most of this went on its own activities, although it also provides news programming to TG4.

This is more than double the audio-visual funding shared by the rest of the sector. Some 7 per cent of the licence fee – about €12 million – goes to Sound and Vision every year, to which independent producers can apply for programme funds. TG4’s exchequer funding next year will be €40.7 million, while film and television development agency Screen Ireland’s total funding is set to rise to €30.9 million.

Mr Esslemont also urged greater prominence for Irish content on television platforms so that it is “up there and easy to see” through linear channels and on an on-demand “Ireland Player” service.

Paul Farrell, managing director of Virgin Media Television, said the mooted levy on audio-visual companies that target Irish audiences, combined with the existing sources of funding, could "really create a healthy model", allowing local radio stations, newspapers and the television sector to create Irish content that resonated at home and abroad.

“My feeling is that there is not that much more funding required, if we’re being honest, it is just better management of it and how it is approved and delivered,” he said.

Screen Ireland and the BAI did “a good job” in allocating their funds to producers, Mr Farrell said, but on RTÉ’s use of licence fee funding there was “a lot of noise, maybe focused on the wrong area, about how much isn’t coming in as opposed to how it is being spent”.

Virgin Media Television, which is ultimately owned by cable giant Liberty Global, expects its advertising revenues to be down 20 per cent this year as a result of the pandemic. It is anticipating "somewhat of a bounce" in 2021, but thereafter a structural decline in traditional media is expected to continue as Google and Facebook tighten their stranglehold on the advertising market.

Publishers’ struggles

Newspaper groups took centre stage in the second part of the committee hearing.

"Publishers are struggling to stay afloat owing to the pandemic and a perfect storm of other issues," NewsBrands Ireland chairman Vincent Crowley said in his opening address.

It is “vital” that public health and other Government advertising campaigns continue to run in print titles, he said, reiterating NewsBrands’ call for a 5 per cent VAT rate on newspapers and digital news products that moves ultimately to a 0 per cent rate.

The Government should also tackle the dominance of the Big Tech companies in digital advertising and reform “punitive” defamation laws that risk putting publishers out of business.

“In the shorter term, subsidies should be considered for the distribution and posting of newspapers. These are not big asks, and supports such as these are modelled on many other European countries.”

Local Ireland executive member Frank Mulrennan said local newspapers should be given access to money from the television licence fee.

“Without it, we are simply not going to be here for the long term,” he said. Local titles, some of which were founded during the famine, were now facing “some really substantive challenges” and their survival should not be taken for granted.

“We do need help.”

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics