Can RTÉ respond to the challenge of Netflix and Amazon?

RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes talks about TV in the streaming age, funding and cultural relevance

Played for dark laughs, there is a moment in coming-of-age comedy The Young Offenders when a dropped hammer takes a comically long time to bounce off several rungs of scaffolding before burying itself in the forehead of a man glued to the spot below. Ireland's television culture is now in danger of becoming that man – it can see the oncoming threat of global heavyweights quite clearly, but it hasn't yet found a way to escape from the onslaught intact.

Standing still will only make the hammer-blows worse, which is why Dee Forbes, RTÉ director-general since 2016, has been out talking about what it needs to do "to be relevant and around for the next generation".

In a piece of self-reflection required by Ireland's broadcasting legislation, RTÉ last autumn submitted a five-year strategy to the Department of Communications, and a detail-light version was published on Tuesday alongside YouTube explainer videos hailing the wonder of Irish creativity and how RTÉ would like to be at the heart of it.

“Strategies evolve. You have to start somewhere, and this is where we’re starting,” Forbes says. “A properly funded RTÉ can deliver an exciting offering to the Irish public, and let’s be honest, that’s why we’re here.”


Arts and culture has “never been more important for us and for the nation”, she says, and under her “One RTÉ” restructuring, the organisation will soon announce its first head of arts and culture. “Arts and culture existed in different pockets before,” she says. “We haven’t been joined up.”

What “joined up” arts and culture looks like to the public is an answers-on-a-postcard question, but Forbes cites RTÉ’s Supporting the Arts “badge”, which last year saw it support 130 festivals and other events around Ireland. “What it means is having full houses at events, rather than a half house-full,” she says.

But does RTÉ have the money to do these things?

“Do we have the money? That’s always the big question. Look, our remit is wide, as you know,” she says. “For the future, the scope of what we can do will depend on funding, there is no doubt about that.”

Land sale

Technically speaking, and notwithstanding the sale of land at Montrose, RTÉ does not have the money: it has recorded a loss in six of the past eight years, with its costs outweighing its combined public and commercial income, and Virgin Media-owned TV3 criticising its rival for overspending its way to a dominant television market share.

“2018 is a pivotal year,” says Forbes. “If there isn’t movement on funding, then there will be severe consequences for us.”

The word “relevance” is mentioned a lot. Has RTÉ’s cultural relevance slipped? “We may have more relevance in certain pockets of the country, and to some of the demographics,” she says. “And I do think that we have the ability to be even more resonant, if you like.”

She points out that more than 700,000 people watched the first episode of The Young Offenders. Here's how this number breaks down. Some 230,000 people watched it "live" as it went out "on linear" (RTÉ2), while a further 180,000 watched a Sunday repeat. Add in people who played back recordings within seven days and that audience swells to 604,000, while it has also been streamed more than 183,000 times to date on the RTÉ Player, taking the total to 787,000.

“When we make the content that the audience wants, they’ll come and watch. But there’s now a job of work to do to build more equity with younger audiences,” says Forbes. (More short-form online content, developed by a “Digital Lab”, is part of the plan.)

The Young Offenders, as great as the Peter Foott comedy is, can be viewed in two lights from RTÉ's perspective. One of them is that it is a successful example of an RTÉ co-production with the BBC, which was the lead commissioner and financier of the series (a spin-off from the original film). RTÉ gets to broadcast it first and nothing of its Cork-ness has been diluted: this is a perfectly normal co-production arrangement that works.

Market reality

But does it also exemplify how dependent RTÉ is on its relationships with other broadcasters just to get content made?

"There are some things we can fully fund ourselves and there are more things we can't, and that's just the reality of the marketplace for content right now, when you have Netflix putting multiple millions into whatever they want to do," says Forbes. Bringing third-party money to the table, she adds, is what has allowed RTÉ to make dramas such as Striking Out and Acceptable Risk.

“I do think that it is also important that we are the lead in some of these areas, and that is why I want to focus on drama a lot, and also on comedy. We have a lot more coming in the autumn that we can’t talk about right now,” she promises.

Netflix and “the Amazons” are the designated bogeymen in the story of television industry upheaval. But would it be possible for RTÉ to partner with them on projects? “Very happy to talk to them,” says Forbes. “When it comes to the right story, and the right content, why not?”

In recent years, drama at RTÉ has been overseen by Jane Gogan, while comedy (including comedy dramas like Can't Cope, Won't Cope) were commissioned by Eddie Doyle, who recently left to become head of content at BBC Northern Ireland. Under Forbes's restructuring, the combined role of head of drama and comedy has been created, with the appointee soon to be announced.

It’s a tough role. RTÉ’s drama battle has been one of both quantity and quality. The latter has traditionally been patchy, and flops are always costly. But even if RTÉ – or TV3 – wins praise for a particular show, its merits can be drowned out in the clamour of “peak TV”. And, critically, it is also not producing enough hours to have even one home-produced, post-watershed drama on at all times of the year.

“There is no doubt that we need more volume in the drama space,” says Forbes. “Our best response to the Netflix and the Amazons is about creating and generating strong, quality Irish content. We’re never going to beat them. And that’s fine, we don’t want to beat them. But we need to ensure that our audience can come to RTÉ and get a great selection of the content they want, when they want it.”

Funding and pitches

Forbes says RTÉ is “inundated with pitches” and that “there is no doubt that the quality is there and the ideas are there”. But getting anything over the line is a struggle. “One of our biggest challenges is that we have somebody coming in to pitch today for a series, which might be for 2019, but we have no idea what our funding will be then. That’s not good for us and it’s not good for the audience.”

When Forbes sees how much love there is for a Channel 4 hit like Derry Girls by Lisa McGee (who a decade ago was creating RTÉ restaurant drama Raw), is there a sense of disappointment that talent such as this can't be supported by RTÉ?

“Absolutely, and that is a consequence of years of cutbacks, that our best and brightest have had to go abroad to get that recognition, and to get their ideas generated. That should be the role of the national broadcaster,” she says. “It does sadden me.”

Like its predecessors, RTÉ’s five-year plan is laden with pleasant-sounding aspirations, though the achievement of its objectives is deeply conditional on some reform of licence fee funding. RTÉ has been waiting to hear something – anything – from the Government on this score for longer than Forbes, who was previously managing director of Discovery Networks Northern Europe, has been in situ in Montrose.

At the moment, RTÉ is working on the assumption that commercial revenues will rise and that it will benefit from, but won’t be the only beneficiary of, public funding reform. Forbes “doesn’t want to get into numbers” on what she thinks the drama budget, or any budget, should be, nor can she say whether RTÉ’s statutory €40 million spending on independent productions will ever reach the €80 million level it was before the recession (although RTÉ is “absolutely passionate” about putting more money into the independent sector).

“There are no figures publicly available right now because it’s all with the department and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland,” she says.

In about a month's time, Forbes expects to hear back from what many believe is a rather ominous independent review of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, which is being carried out by former senior BBC executive Helen Boaden and consulting firm Mediatique.

Two orchestras

Is the objective of this review to find ways to increase orchestral revenues (perhaps through more Jenny Greene-style collaborations) or is it the case that RTÉ would rather not continue housing the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra?

“The reason that we’re doing the review is to get an independent expert to look at us, but also to benchmark us with other countries and to see what is happening in that space, because it is a complex and evolving space. But it also has to be said that the preference would be to maintain two orchestras. There is no doubt about that,” says Forbes.

Again, the funding situation is “just so volatile”, she adds. “This is bigger than RTÉ. This is a decision that will have to be taken by the department along with Government.”

The number of full-time positions in the orchestras has dwindled over time, and another cut is feared. Doesn’t this make it very difficult for musicians to pursue careers in Ireland?

“Yes, and this is why we had probably got to a point where it was no longer sustainable to keep going as we were going,” she says. “Because over the years, you’re right, a number of positions became vacant and they weren’t replaced.”

She agrees that it would be a contradiction for RTÉ to retreat from funding the orchestras while simultaneously declaring a strategy of supporting the arts on the ground. “The orchestras have so much to give,” says Forbes.

Her broad task also involves reforming the culture within RTÉ, where words like efficiency and performance have entered the workplace lexicon, and where up to 250 people, or an eighth of its workforce, are in the middle of leaving under a voluntary exit scheme. Is the RTÉ job what she expected it would be?

“I don’t think anybody working in the industry for as long as I have would have come into a job like this and not known that it would be challenging,” she says. “I came in with my eyes wide open, absolutely.”

Broadcasting has come a long way since the one-channel, and then two-channel, world of Drimoleague, Co Cork, where she grew up. But when asked what she is enjoying at the moment, Forbes's first pick is, unsurprisingly, close to home. "I have to say I am loving The Young Offenders – I know I am from Cork," she says, laughing. "Though even I find the accent tough sometimes."