Will we miss RTÉ’s kids’ TV?

After 55 years RTÉ is hoping to get out of making programmes for children. But will it make any difference in a world of always-on digital?

Going, going, gone?: Ray D’Arcy with Zig and Zag and, from top, Brain Freeze, Bosco and Twigín

Going, going, gone?: Ray D’Arcy with Zig and Zag and, from top, Brain Freeze, Bosco and Twigín

 

It could have been a scene from one of those movies that will clog up the schedules for the next few weeks. Four weeks before Christmas the members of RTÉ’s Young People’s Department were called into a meeting, where hard-faced management types (played, ideally, by Bill Murray and James Caan) broke the bad news.

“We were told very coldly at half past five by a team of men in suits that the department was closing down in three weeks’ time,” one employee says. “Everyone was devastated, and a lot of people were in tears.”

In the film hearts would ultimately be melted, the managers would put on Santa costumes and reconnect with their inner child and there’d be tears of joy on Christmas Eve. (Alternatively, the puppets break out of the props room and make a break for freedom across the Stillorgan dual carriageway.)

But in the real world the likelihood is that the plans will go ahead. Under the proposals 11 staff will be redeployed within RTÉ while eight stay on to handle the commissioning and promotion of programmes. The remaining 15 people, who are not staff, will have their contracts terminated by the end of December.

The plans mean that for the first time in RTÉ’s history no children’s programming would be produced in-house, breaking a tradition that stretches back to the foundation of Telefís Éireann, in 1961.

In a statement later that evening of November 23rd RTÉ said the move was intended to “achieve stronger efficiencies and value for money” and insisted it would not be reducing the amount of money it spends on young people’s programmes.

“RTÉ remains fully committed to delivering original Irish content for young people, and this decision means that RTÉ is now fully investing its young people’s programme budget in the independent sector, allowing independent production companies and animation companies to pitch new ideas and programmes for delivery to our youngest viewers,” the statement said.

When media companies become the story it’s rarely a pretty sight. For two days management failed to respond to interview requests, even from their own colleagues.

When the controller of RTÉ One and RTÉ2, Adrian Lynch, finally managed to make the five-minute walk over to Mary Wilson on Drivetime, on RTÉ Radio, he denied the decision was cruel, but by that stage it looked as if a better word would be ham-fisted, with management conceding that it had failed to follow the correct internal procedures. The termination of contracts was deferred, and consultations have now begun with trade unions.

RTÉ told The Irish Times this week that it wouldn’t be commenting further while the consultations were under way. But it did reiterate that there will continue to be a dedicated Young People’s Department, which will run the RTÉjr TV channel, radio channel, app and dedicated section on RTÉ Player, as well as manage and commission content for the block of dedicated programming for four- to 14-year-olds on RTÉ2.

“There would be a team of in-house RTÉ staff producers who would oversee the commissioning of programming from the independent sector, as well as an online and social-media team,” a spokesperson said.

Over the past week, though, several voices have been raised in defence of the principle of keeping an in-house production unit.

“Given the important role television plays in forming the attitudes of the young, RTÉ should be improving its programmes for them, and not doing away with its in-house leadership and talent,” Con Bushe, a former head of young people’s programmes, wrote in a letter to The Irish Times this week.

Children’s TV royalty

Paula LambertWanderly Wagon

“I remember Wanderly Wagon was axed, and how it was done, and how hurt my dad was back in the day,” she said. “It happened with me with Bosco, and it just brought back all these memories of how badly people are treated by RTÉ.”

Others, though, point out that most of the programming that currently fills the RTÉjr schedule between 7am and 7pm has been bought internationally or commissioned from local independent producers.

There is no evidence that independent productions are inferior in any way. In fact Ireland is going through an unprecedented golden era for children’s TV production.

Irish animation – nearly all of it made for the children’s market – is on a roll. Employment in the independent animation sector is at an all-time high, of 1,600 full-time jobs, dwarfing the numbers employed by RTÉ in the area. Changes in technology mean that relatively small companies can produce imaginative shows that are seen around the world.

Most of these programmes are financed from outside Ireland, a bone of contention for the independent sector.

“RTÉ only give us 2 per cent of their independent-commissions budget, which is a tiny percentage of their overall spend,” a spokesperson for Animation Ireland said in September.

“I am very aware that the sector would like RTÉ to do more,” the broadcaster’s director-general, Dee Forbes, acknowledged.

The comedian and writer Colm Tobin, whose hilarious Brain Freeze short animations about science have been recommissioned for a third season on RTÉ and BBC next year, has sympathy for the people affected by the proposed cuts but also sees the opportunities.

“It’s good news for independent producers for sure if they go through with the plan,” he says. “But how that pans out remains to be seen.”

Children’s TV is different from other television programming. Different audience. Different priorities. Different regulations. It’s part of the overall broadcasting world, subject to the same shifts and pressures, yet over the years has developed its own, very particular genres and conventions.

From Wanderly Wagon and Sesame Street to In the Night Garden and SpongeBob SquarePants, children’s television has always been a refuge for the surreal, the zany, the hypnotic and, occasionally, the downright weird.

It has been a springboard for the careers of many household names, from David Attenborough to Dara Ó Briain. Two of Ireland’s best broadcasters, Ian Dempsey and Ray D’Arcy, cut their teeth with Zig and Zag in the romper room that was The Den.

And children’s television has been the source of Proustian nostalgia for generation upon generation of children. Most of us have formative memories of characters, tunes and stories from our own particular era.

Intertwined with all this is a deeply held belief in some quarters that quality programmes for children are one of the things that define what a national public-service broadcaster should be. It’s important, they argue, that children in particular have access to representations of their own specific culture, place and – in the context of Ireland – language, amid a sea of homogenised mass entertainment.

In many ways it’s a distillation to its purest form of the cultural rationale for publicly funded nonprofit broadcasting. How that mission can be achieved, if at all, in a world where traditional linear broadcast television is being disrupted and displaced by on-demand and online platforms remains to be seen.

Canary in the coalmine

Most digital-TV bundles now include several channels dedicated to children, including RTEjr, TG4’s Cúla 4 and two ad-free services from the BBC (CBeebies and CBBC), along with highly commercialised offerings from the likes of Nickelodeon and Disney.

National broadcasters are now subject to much stricter regulation of advertising targeted at children. But young people’s TV is still a lucrative international business, in which popular series become global brands, making far bigger profits from licensing and merchandising than from the programmes themselves.

Entertainment One, owner of Peppa Pig, expects its small pink star to generate €1.4 billion in retail sales this year, rising to €1.9 billion in 2020 on the back of Peppa’s expansion into the Chinese market. In these scenarios the shows themselves effectively become advertisements.

Add to that the long-standing cultural anxiety, which hasn’t gone away, about what impact excessive TV-watching may have on childhood development. Although there has been a decline in recent years in the amount of traditional television they watch, a survey by Core Media and Ignite Research in November 2015 found that Irish children aged 14 and under were watching an additional two hours of video online via laptops, tablets and smartphones, bringing their combined total to more than four hours a day. (A recent report by Early Childhood Ireland suggested that the maximum leisure screen time for children over the age of two should be no more than two hours a day.)

What for previous generations of children was a couple of hours of programmes broadcast every afternoon has now turned into a high-pressure firehose of nonstop content, available any time and any place, driven for the most part by the commercial imperatives of advertisers and marketers. And with a million wannabe YouTube stars clamouring for young eyeballs, what used to be a rather gentle landscape has been entirely transformed. At the other end of the spectrum, the quality of animated films has soared in the past two decades, in the slipstream of the brilliant work pioneered by Pixar. All of this is just a mouse click or screenswipe away.

How does RTÉ fare within this competitive environment? So far this year RTEjr has had an audience share of 7.4 per cent of four- to 14-year-olds. That means more than 90 per cent of children watching TV are watching something else – and they’re not necessarily watching traditional children’s shows at all.

RTÉ’s own top 20 programmes of 2016 watched by young people are dominated by sport (Euro 2016 in particular) and by films such as Paddington and The Croods, which are usually shown in its popular Saturday movie slot. The annual ratings-buster that is last night’s Late Late Toy Show will probably beat the lot of these when the official numbers come in.

Online, the RTÉjr app has been downloaded 50,000 times and has 11,500 unique browsers a month, averaging 11 minutes a visit, and its RTÉjr website has 7,500 unique browsers a month, generating 28,000 page views on average. These figures look relatively modest by comparison with overall Irish online traffic.

More outsourcing to come?

Certainly, the broadcasting future that Dee Forbes outlined to an Oireachtas committee recently – declining ad revenues, underwhelming licence-fee income, new digital challenges – suggests that a shift from a production to a commissioning model might be on the cards for other departments on a smaller Montrose campus with fewer studio facilities.

Although the cost per hour of independent productions is not much lower, significant savings can be made in overheads and operational costs by reducing the number of staff.

RTÉ says it has already spent €1.85 million in the independent sector on young people’s programming for 2017, including series from Irish companies such as Monster and Kavaleer, along with a 24-part comedy drama coproduction with Australia. If the proposals go ahead it promises that it will commission even more independents. A necessary move with the times or a further erosion of public-service broadcasting?

The challenge for RTÉ, as for other media organisations, is how to remain relevant for a new generation without going bust in the process.

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