The RTÉ licence fee: when is ‘TV’ no longer a TV?
Donald Clarke: Many Irish teenagers view little but YouTube videos. Is that television?
Irish television in the 1960s and 1970s: turn it on late in the day and you would get monochrome images of loaf-faced newsreaders detailing economic mayhem. Photograph: Steven Taylor/Photonica/Getty
Dee Forbes, the new director general of RTÉ, stomped straight into the ordure when she seemed to imply that the licence fee could reasonably be doubled. The subsequent clarification would hardly have been more vigorous if she’d given the impression that the Sudetenland was soon be annexed. “What I was saying was that the licence fee here in Ireland is incredible value at 40c a day,” she said. Once again the concept of the licence fee was under consideration.
In principle the fee is a good thing. I make no comment on any specific RTÉ programme. But a levy aimed at providing public-service broadcasting sounds like a mark of civilisation. Places like Denmark and Norway extract significantly more from viewers than the €160 we are asked to keep the angelus on the air. It’s the sort of thing you associate with dedicated bicycle lanes, sensible drug laws and transgender police officers.
In theory the levy ensures that a significant corner of the broadcasting continuum is free from excessive commercial pressures. This will inevitably lead to Manx poetry, atonal choral music and other stuff we only pretend to like. But it should also free programme-makers – and, ideally, film-makers – to take risks in the production of worthwhile material. This is a fine idea.
The problem is that the method of collection is beginning to seem hopelessly archaic. The RTÉ funding structure dates from a time when television was seen to be only slightly less hazardous than cholera. The State loomed over broadcasters to ensure that no foreign input would poison weak-minded viewers.
We expect to have licences for things that are potentially dangerous: guns, motorbikes, savage dogs. To get one, citizens are expected to demonstrate a degree of responsibility. In the case of television only one organisation was, for decades, allowed to provide content (as we then didn’t say) for this potentially destructive medium. Unable to trust viewers to watch responsibly, the State placed the moral onus on broadcasters.
An Irish television in the 1960s and early 1970s was a peculiar device. Turn it on sufficiently late in the day and you would get monochrome images of loaf-faced newsreaders detailing economic mayhem. If you weren’t lucky enough to catch Mannix or The Streets of San Francisco, then you might have been tempted to reach for the big plastic dial.
A waste of energy. You had as much chance of causing Caribbean atolls to replace the damp Irish streets glimpsed through the window frame. The dial didn’t do anything. After much twirling it brought you right back to the same black-and-white image.
The arrival of RTÉ 2, in 1978, changed things just a little, but the viewer was still subject to paternalistic care by a watchful State. Some signs of the current anarchy arrived with video, in the 1980s. Before the Video Recordings Act of 1989 this allowed punters to see many horrid films previously banned in cinemas – Brief Encounter, Fantasia and so forth. But the airwaves remained pure and untainted.
The notion of licensing somebody to enjoy broadcasts of moving pictures still made a kind of sense. There was, at that point, only one way of accessing such images. Then cable and satellite came along. The internet shook things up even further.
Defining what we now mean by television is a fiendishly difficult philosophical challenge. The legislation requires citizens to pay for a licence if they have a TV set. If a person watches Amazon Prime on his computer, then he need not pay the fee. If he buys a smart TV and watches the same service on that, then he is liable.
Where does the line between cinema and television lie? The terrible films that Adam Sandler makes for Netflix are no different from the terrible films he used to make for Columbia. Yet the new work is not quite cinema. It’s not quite television, either, but you’ll need a licence if you watch it on a receiver.
Many teenagers now view little else but YouTube videos. Is that TV? If so, then is anybody who uploads a video now a broadcaster?
A mere accident of technological history binds these media together under the televisual umbrella. Tying the fee to the ownership of one type of receiver makes less sense than the window taxes and hearth taxes of antiquity.
There are so many screens about the home – on phones, computers, tablets – that any levy on those devices would be impractical. A TV is no longer a TV.
Financing RTÉ out of general taxation would require some legal and political gymnastics, but the shifts in technology may soon make that the only logical option.
Or we could meter the service, like water. How did that work out again?