Reports that a decision on the future of RTÉ may not be made until after the budget invite an obvious question: which budget? It feels like a rookie error to assume Budget 2024. Maybe it’s Budget 2042?
Almost as unsurprising as news that the RTÉ crisis will not be resolved on budget day is a new opinion poll confirming that the public isn’t overly enamoured with paying the television licence fee. No plot twists here.
According to the Ipsos research commissioned by The Irish Times, only 27 per cent of people now say they will “definitely pay” their licence fee when it next falls due.
The longer the Government strings out its ‘do nothing’ approach to public media funding reform, the greater the expansion we will see in the proportion of never-payers and never-again payers
This sounds semi-sarcastic: “I’ll definitely pay it, yeah.” Anything to make the terrible compliance advertisements stop. Still, some people continue to believe in the principle of paying for what they use. Some even value what RTÉ provides. Others are fond of avoiding prosecution.
A further 24 per cent told Ipsos they will “probably pay”, which presumably means they will get around to it, but with a heavy heart and only after a couple of reminder notices have drained the colour ink cartridges in the An Post printer.
With 9 per cent answering “don’t know/no opinion”, that leaves 40 per cent who say they will probably not pay, definitely not pay or never pay. This breaks down into 13 per cent probably not-payers, 16 per cent definite not-payers and 11 per cent who say they never pay.
That 11 per cent figure is one to watch. That’s because the longer the Government strings out its “do nothing” approach to public media funding reform, the greater the expansion we will see in the proportion of never-payers and never-again payers.
One catalyst for this could be a future surge in the number of households opting to eschew a traditional television set in favour of viewing content through another — and, let’s face it, lesser — device.
Unlike in the UK, where the BBC “iPlayer loophole” was closed seven years ago, it is not necessary to buy a licence fee just to watch something on the RTÉ Player. The only trigger for liability is ownership of a set capable of receiving a television signal by cable, satellite or aerial.
But the never-payers are on track to grow for another inescapable reason: none of us are getting any younger.
Even before 2023′s calamitous plunge in the rate of licence renewals, only about two-thirds of total licence fee receipts were being collected by An Post
At present, free television licences are available to everybody aged 70 and over through their entitlement to the household benefits package (HBP). As people aged 66-70 can also get the HBP if they receive a State pension or various other qualifying social welfare payments, anyone in this category should check they are receiving all of their entitlements before making the mistake of shelling out for a licence out of their own pocket.
The Government’s rejection in 2022 of the Future of Media Commission recommendation that public media should be funded directly from the exchequer masked the fact that a substantial chunk of it comes from this source already.
Even before 2023′s calamitous plunge in the rate of licence renewals, only about two-thirds of total licence fee receipts were being collected by An Post. The other third was contributed by the Department of Social Protection in respect of free television licences granted as part of the HBP.
This transfer from the Department of Social Protection to the department with responsibility for RTÉ has become the mechanism by which successive governments have raised or reduced the funding of the broadcaster.
Given the population of the State is ageing, both entitlement to a free television licence fee and the proportion of direct exchequer funding is destined to increase if the rules are left untouched.
An undermentioned consequence of this trend is that some of the heaviest consumers of RTÉ — older viewers — are not required to pay the licence fee, while younger generations more likely to have a weaker connection to the broadcaster are obliged to keep the thing going.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that pensioners should have to pay. But I do think it worth observing that the demographic most loyal to RTÉ and the age groups asked to fund its services are not the same and that this mismatch doesn’t help anyone tasked with maximising the collection of the €160 fee.
I’m somewhere between a definite-payer and a probably-payer in that I fully intend to pay at the next renewal date, but it’s always possible my ability to concentrate on dull administrative tasks might snap during the process of entering the bafflingly long reference number on the renewals site. Such are the perils of mid-life. But then the travails of paying the licence fee have become a distinctly mid-life issue. Indeed, let’s call it a Generation X one.
For anyone born before 1965 but not yet a pensioner, there is good news: an end date to licence fee liability is in sight
Born between 1965 and 1980, Generation X was once known as the “MTV Generation”, a tag that reflects the advent of an alternative entertainment option now almost as forgotten in the cultural landscape as Gen X itself.
We’re young enough to have grown up in a multichannel universe from the 1980s onwards, streamed low-quality camera footage from the Big Brother house at the turn of the millennium and adapted our home entertainment systems several times since then with each dawn of new technology.
But we remember when television in this State was synonymous with RTÉ and RTÉ only. We still appreciate the pleasure of a proper set and largely think faffing about with projectors — as younger Millennials and Generation Z are more apt to do — is a backwards step.
For anyone born before 1965 but not yet a pensioner, there is good news: an end date to licence fee liability is in sight. Actually, that’s true even at the top end of the Gen X date-of-birth range.
For the rest of us, those licence reminders with their 17-digit reference numbers will, in the absence of Government reform, keep rolling around like Reeling in the Years repeats, or relics of a past world we’re not sure we understand anymore.