Number of TV licences sold last year falls short by almost 70,000

Drop could lead to potential €11m revenue loss for public service broadcasters

RTÉ director general Dee Forbes  said in a correspondence that financial planning for this year was “extremely challenging”. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

RTÉ director general Dee Forbes said in a correspondence that financial planning for this year was “extremely challenging”. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The number of TV licences sold last year fell short of target by almost 70,000 and has led to a potential €11 million revenue loss for public service broadcasters.

Information provided to the Dáil’s spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), indicates that the Covid-19 pandemic impacted on licence sales, with inspections suspended due to public health guidelines.

Separate correspondence obtained by The Irish Times shows that RTÉ director general Dee Forbes told Minister for Media Catherine Martin of how financial planning for this year was “extremely challenging” and sought clarity on the TV licence sales target for the year ahead.

Correspondence sent to the PAC from Department of Communications secretary general Mark Griffin says that Covid-19 impacted sales last year as TV licence inspections were suspended.

There were 961,277 TV licences sold, some 6.7 per cent below the target for the year or about 69,000 fewer licences, which cost €160 each.

The documents also say that, while the current evasion rate of 12.6 per cent is down 2.4 per cent from 2016 levels, it still equates to a loss of up to €40 million per annum to public service broadcasting.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy had requested that the information on TV licences be sent to the PAC during an appearance by Mr Griffin at the committee in January.

Ms Murphy on Thursday night suggested that in the response the department “failed to acknowledge that for a significant period of time throughout 2020 certain demographics were either too frightened to leave their home – or under the impression they couldn’t – to renew their TV licence, particularly during our first lockdown”.

“It can’t also be assumed that everyone has the ability to renew the licence online,” she said.

In a letter to Ms Martin sent on November 18th, Ms Forbes said RTÉ needed clarity on the target for TV Licence Fee sales for this year to aid the broadcaster’s financial planning and to help it decide on investments in programming.

She said TV licence fees make up more than 50 per cent of the broadcaster’s total income and “any underperformance has a significant impact on RTÉ’s financial position”.

‘New challenges’

A section of the letter, released under Freedom of Information laws, is redacted but Ms Forbes goes on to outline how RTÉ would be able to manage last year’s “shortfall” in income.

RTÉ declined to comment on whether Ms Forbes was referring to a shortfall in Licence Fee funding or commercial revenues or both.

A spokesman said: “Details regarding RTÉ’s financial performance in 2020 will be included in RTÉ’s Annual Report for 2020 which will be published later this year.”

In her letter, Ms Forbes said that early in the pandemic RTÉ reduced operating costs and deferred all but essential capital spending.

“Big sporting events were cancelled or moved, and we have availed of the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme,” she said.

However, Ms Forbes said this year “will bring new challenges” with large deferred costs such as covering the Olympics in Japan and the European Championships football tournament set to be incurred.

She also said that “Government wage subsidies will be unavailable to us” and “market uncertainty due to both Brexit and Covid-19 will remain”.