Challenging times ahead for newly appointed RTÉ chief
Dee Forbes will be obliged to deploy her extensive experience on behalf of broadcaster
RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes in a mail to staff noted that “change can be disconcerting, but ultimately I have always believed that change is good”.
Dundalk FC’s win over Bate Borisov this week to advance to the next stage of Champions League qualification represented a rare triumph for Irish domestic football. But in its aftermath, social media crackled with complaints from viewers who were unable to watch the match because Virgin Media had abruptly pulled the newly rebranded sport channel, Eir (formerly Setanta), from its digital TV service.
The complaints fell on deaf ears. “We’ve made our choice and we’re comfortable with it,” said Virgin Media Ireland’s chief executive Tony Hanway, describing the channel as too expensive.
It was a brief exchange of small-arms fire in a much bigger war. While Eir’s sports package looks a little threadbare right now, this will change as RTÉ’s former head of TV Glen Killane arrives to lead a determined push into using sport as a vehicle to sell the company’s broadband, TV and phone bundles, competing directly with Virgin Media and Sky. Across Europe, these are the battlegrounds on which the future of television is being fought.
It’s a landscape with which Dee Forbes will be familiar. The new director-general of RTÉ spent years as managing director of Discovery Networks Northern Europe, where she managed 27 TV brands in 18 markets, reaching more than 270 million households. The pressing question for her now is how the traditional model of Irish public service broadcasting, funded by the licence fee and advertising, can adapt, survive and remain relevant in the era of video-on-demand, subscription streaming services and ubiquitous digital devices.
When she officially took up the job last month, Forbes sent an introductory message to staff. “My aim is to work with you to future-proof the organisation to cope with the changes our industry is facing whilst ensuring that RTÉ is a beacon of creativity at home and abroad, ” she wrote.
That task may already have become a little harder with the departure within a few weeks of each other of three key management figures. First Killane announced his move to Eir. Then TV3 poached RTÉ2 channel controller Bill Malone to become its new director of programming. And this week Kevin Bakhurst, the deputy director-general and head of news and current affairs, revealed he would be leaving in October to take up a position with the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom.
Bakhurst and Killane were both favourites for the director-general post, so it may not seem surprising that they’ve now chosen to move on. But in the sometimes claustrophobically small world of Irish broadcasting, such a rapid changing of the guard is unprecedented. Essentially it means that the top three positions in the national broadcaster will have new occupants by the end of the year.
Given that Forbes is the first outsider to be appointed director-general in half a century, the general view within the organisation is that the vacancies will probably be filled by internal candidates, with head of TV current affairs David Nally tipped to take over from Bakhurst in the top news job.
It’s worth noting that, as well as being an outsider, Forbes is also the first director-general in more than 20 years not to come from a programme-making background. For the moment, Dermot Horan, RTÉ Television’s long-standing director of production and acquisitions, is acting as interim managing director of RTÉ Television, while RTÉ One controller Adrian Lynch is also filling in as interim RTÉ2 channel controller. Both are contenders to succeed Killane. Meanwhile, the channel controller positions have only existed in their current form for the last three years and might well be scrapped in a restructuring.
Whether Forbes sees the need to retain Bakhurst’s other role of deputy director-general also remains to be seen. Bakhurst was an impressive and fluent front-of-house man for RTÉ when a spokesman was required on the airwaves or at public events. Forbes may wish to take on that role herself as she seeks to put her imprint on the organisation’s public face.
“This is a period of significant change in RTÉ and across the media landscape generally,” Forbes wrote in a mail to staff on Wednesday. “Change can be disconcerting, but ultimately I have always believed that change is good. With it, we challenge ourselves, our thinking and our ways of working. Organisations like ours need to grow and evolve, and audiences must ultimately benefit.”
Continuity and corporate memory is still important, though. Everyone within RTÉ knows how management missteps in the highly sensitive and politicised areas of news and current affairs can quickly spark a forest fire. The debacle represented by the defamatory Mission to Prey programme and the slapdash handling of a mischievous tweet during the 2011 presidential election debate did deep damage to the organisation’s self-image and led to the untimely departure of previous head of news Ed Mulhall. Over the last four years, Bakhurst has brought equilibrium, building a new and successful investigations unit and repairing the reputational damage.
RTÉ has made much of its cost-cutting and rationalisation in recent years, although it would be surprising if, coming from a successful multinational business, Forbes did not still find some archaic work practices. But much of her focus in the next year will necessarily be on addressing structural and financial challenges. With the mooted universal broadcast charge now off the table, RTÉ will be pushing for political support for a number of proposals to improve its balance sheet.
Because of one-off events such as the 1916 centenary, it will almost certainly return a larger loss this year than the €2.8 million it incurred in 2015. It will be seeking – yet again – a more robust approach to licence fee evasion, which is far higher here than in the UK, and will be pushing for legislation to allow it to charge services such as Sky and Virgin Media for the right to carry its channels.
It may also look for a reversal of some of the extra burdens imposed on it by governments during the financial crisis. Meanwhile, the project to sell off some of the Montrose campus is already under way and proceeds from that will need to be ring-fenced for investment in new technology and facilities. All of this will require time, finesse and excellent negotiating skills.
But the greatest challenge will be in redefining who RTÉ is for and what its public service priorities should be within a shifting competitive environment. TV3, flush with cash from new owner Virgin Media, and reunited with its lucrative British soaps courtesy of the bargain-basement purchase of UTV Ireland, looks set to challenge more strongly than ever before, with content strategy for three channels (TV3, 3e and UTV Ireland) under the direction of Malone, who has a proven eye for the 18- to 35-year-old demographic.
Eir has already secured the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and will certainly be seeking further opportunities, perhaps in GAA. For the owners of both companies, TV is a loss-leader as they seek to build dominant positions in the broadband market. Meanwhile, traditional broadcasting is failing to capture the attention of a generation of “cord-cutters”. How should RTÉ react to the challenge? Can it afford to use scarce resources to compete for increasingly overpriced sports rights, or should it refocus and reprioritise?
In her message this week, Forbes told staff that RTÉ “is setting out on a renewed journey where a combination of new and existing leaders, working together with you, will shape and define the RTÉ of the future.” Inside and outside Montrose, that definition will be awaited with some anticipation.