There may be trouble ahead for RTÉ – but don’t set your watch to it

The broadcaster is bidding to ‘still be around’ for future generations but aren’t we all?

Dee Forbes, RTÉ director-general: Currently preparing the organisation’s next five-year plan.

Dee Forbes, RTÉ director-general: Currently preparing the organisation’s next five-year plan.

 

At “future of media” events, there’s a quote from Bill Gates that pops up on the presentation decks like clockwork.

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10,” the Microsoft founder allegedly wrote in his 1995 book, Save Yourselves Now While You Still Can. No, sorry, he called it The Road Ahead.

Microsoft very possibly went on to succumb to a similar distortion of foresight to that outlined by Gates. A decade on, companies like Google and Apple were gearing up to whizz past it on that road, while Microsoft was busy launching Zune. (Zune? It was a music thing. RIP Zune.)

The Irish media market is now 10 years on from 2007, a year that two things happened: the circulation of printed newspapers began to decline in a trend that has continued, more or less unbroken, ever since, and RTÉ’s commercial revenues peaked at about €246 million.

By 2007, the year the first iPhone was released, it was already obvious that the internet was going to seriously trouble the business model for newspapers and that those first sales wobbles were not merely a glitch.

But for broadcasters such as RTÉ, it was not quite so clear in those initial years of decline that its lost advertising revenues would not be recovered. At first, it was just a recession. Then it was a really awful recession.

Only later did this whole video-streaming business, and the structural and technological shift it represents, seem like something to worry about. By this point, the future people used to fret about – the fragmented, multi-channel television universe – was so established in the fabric of the industry, it ceased to be remarkable even as it chipped away at that magical thing that must be protected: share.

‘Future proofing’

Share of audience is an important metric, for advertisers and for the media executives whose performance is viewed as successful according to how it rises and falls. But here’s the thing: it’s not much good having a handsome share of an ugly market. Over the long term, a boost in share can disguise a decline in fortune.

At RTÉ, director-general Dee Forbes is tasked with “future-proofing” Ireland’s public service media organisation, which means instilling it with the flexibility to reposition itself when things really start to decay. Pushing through a restructuring, details of which are being shared with various RTÉ departments this week, is the job Forbes was hired from Discovery to do.

The voluntary exit scheme will see “about” 250 people or one in eight employees leave RTÉ, although if it receives more applications for redundancy than this, it will surely take them.

These departures will coincide with a divisional restructuring, the finer practicalities of which are still being ironed out. But the big questions are the same old ones: Who reports to who? Who holds the purse strings? How much money have we got anyway? Is my current role defunct or more important than ever? Are there other opportunities out there if I opt for redundancy?

Known unknowns

In her remarks to staff, Forbes spoke of “painful choices” and how sitting still was “not an option” in a radically changing market. “I grew up with RTÉ and I want RTÉ to still be around when future generations grow up,” she also said. Would this have needed saying 10 years ago? Probably not.

Under the Broadcasting Act 2009, both RTÉ and TG4 are required to furnish the broadcasting regulator with five-year strategy documents that form part of the regulator’s own review of public media funding. This means that compared to other Irish media groups, RTÉ is in the unusual position of being obliged by legislation to make and spell out its plans for the future, at least in big-picture terms.

It’s a bit like the fabled interview question: where do you see yourself in five years’ time? Except that it is being applied to a corporate planning exercise.

There are no prizes for being downbeat, yet too much ambition can look foolish. Last time around, in the strategy out to 2017, items on RTÉ’s wishlist were said to be “finance-dependent”, meaning, of course, that they didn’t happen.

It is now preparing its 2018-2022 strategy at a time when the business of broadcasting is beset by known unknowns. For RTÉ, these include the question-mark over future levels of public funding, the strength and persistency of local rivals, the scale of the international competition, the speed of technological advances and the precise date of the “tipping point” at which audience drift accelerates.

Hey, maybe it won’t. But the Irish media market is squirming on some uncertain ground right now, and the one thing that could prove more damaging than overestimating the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimating the change that will occur in the next 10, as Gates had it, is the risk of underestimating both.

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