Morale low as RTE strips down to face the digital challenge

 

Cynical readers might suggest that reports of belt-tightening, poor communication and low morale at RTE are about as newsworthy as last year's weather forecast.

Don't be fooled, though, by the familiar contours: inside this story is an organisation that in 2000 will face some of its biggest hurdles, and they are a hazardous combination, technical, industrial, commercial and political.

The outcome will have a real effect on our TV and radio options.

The "crisis" was introduced to the public last month with a flurry of publicity about staff cutbacks. However, although as many as 300 of RTE's 2,200 employees could be let go, and although staff will be watching the redundancy packages and to whom they are offered with wary interest, these cuts may prove relatively uncontroversial.

"To be honest," says one insider, "they're going to have a big queue."

Mr Kevin Healy, RTE's director of public affairs, admits the cuts have a political as well as a practical dimension, saying: "Before we go looking for additional public money, we want to say we've addressed inefficiencies in our organisation."

At present all hiring in RTE, including temporary employment of freelances, requires board approval. "We're not an organisation in decline," Mr Healy says, "but one that needs to regenerate and reform."

The new year will see RTE push for an increase in "the lowest licence fee in western Europe", Mr Healy says. He points out that it has risen only once since 1986, when it jumped in 1996 from £62 to £70. The suggestion at that time by the minister, Mr Michael D. Higgins, that the fee would be index-linked was dropped by the present Government.

According to Mr Healy, "To date, that's cost us £6 million." RTE has not yet decided how big an increase it will seek.

It has decided, however, that the promise and problems of the digital future will be central to its political pleas.

"Digital TV will be public service broadcasting," Mr Healy says. "For a good many years it will be parallel with our analog service, and it certainly won't be self-financing." RTE now earns nearly two-thirds of its revenue from commercials.

But is the organisation approaching things too defensively?

"They should be much more gung-ho about changes," says Mr Michael Foley, lecturer in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology and a commentator on media affairs. "All we hear is `cutbacks' and `financial problems'." With the first digital stations due from RTE in about a year, it should be trying to generate interest in new technology and programming, he says. "They should start telling us what they're going to do. No one feels compelled about buying digital TV equipment."

So what is going to be on Irish digital TV? We'll be hearing much more about that in 2000. The Broadcasting Bill, once enacted, will give RTE the primary broadcasting influence in determining the future of Digico, the new company responsible for digital broadcasting.

That means, in effect, three new TV stations in the hands of Montrose, plus the power to create a plethora of local "opt-out" TV services at relatively low cost. Those three new state-wide stations? One near-certainty is a 24-hour news and current affairs service. Another is likely to be an educational channel that could include Oireachtas coverage. And there is talk of a "youth" service. One obvious answer to the question of how fewer employees will produce far more programming is that, to some extent, they won't: the trend towards more production outside RTE will accelerate.

Last year RTE TV's spending on independent productions rose from £10 million to £16 million. More quietly, radio has also been farming out programmes to outside companies.

E has been "grossly overstaffed", this shift has undoubtedly reduced the workload for some employees, and will continue to do so with digital. Moreover, changes in production technology mean a reduced role for technical staff, as programme-makers can more easily work alone at tasks such as sound recording and editing.

Early retirements financed by RTE's profit from the sale of Cablelink to NTL are likely to come heavily in engineering areas, as well as among older staff across the board.

"Programme-makers should be in the ascendant," says one observer. "The old dominance of the technicians is gone." However, there is widespread dissatisfaction among the programme-makers, who see resources already spread thin, their responsibilities increasing and teamwork declining with new technology.

"The people who work on daily radio programmes are already treated like shelf-stackers," says one. "Quality doesn't matter." Ironically the director-general, Mr Bob Collins, is largely viewed as benign and inclusive, while there is widespread bad feeling towards management. One senior TV executive provoked resentment with a particularly lavish pre-Christmas party in the midst of cutback talks, and radio personnel were angered when a number of trainee producers were let go around the same time.

Mr Collins's interpersonal qualities will be called upon in the new year as staff, politicians and the viewing and listening public need convincing that the changes RTE faces are for the best.