Spreading licence fee around 'to hit RTÉ's public role'


CLERAUN MEDIA CONFERENCE:RTÉ'S ROLE as a public service broadcaster will be seriously undermined if proposals to give more of the licence fee to commercial operators are implemented, the managing director of RTÉ Television Noel Curran has claimed.

At present 5 per cent of the licence fee is made available to commercial operators such as TV3 and Setanta through the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland's (BCI) Sound and Vision fund which was set up two years ago and has distributed €45.3 million to date.

Mr Curran told the 12th annual Cleraun Media Conference at the weekend there was speculation that the forthcoming Broadcasting Bill will see a substantial increase in the fund, with the possibility that it could be doubled.

He said much of RTÉ's home programming will be replaced by cheaper bought-in programmes if its share of the licence fee is cut at a time when advertising revenue is under serious pressure.

"If commercial income is falling this year, if we go into free fall which is not inconceivable, we are going to have to look at the schedule, particularly if public funding is undermined," he said.

The conference was organised by Opus Dei at its Cleraun study centre in south Dublin.

Sponsors of the event included The Irish Times, RTÉ, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, the Press Council of Ireland and the ESB.

Mr Curran said it was "highly unusual" for companies like TV3, which is owned by private equity firm Doughty Hanson, and Setanta, which is also substantially owned by the same firm, to receive licence-fee funding. The fund is also available for broadcasters outside the State. The BBC and Film4 have both availed of it.

The fund was set up under the Broadcasting Bill in 2003 to distribute production of new radio and television programmes on Irish culture, heritage and experience, and adult literacy. The money is available to independent production companies.

There has been six rounds of funding to date. In the last round TV3 received 19 per cent of the funding, Setanta 7 per cent, but the bulk of funding went to either RTÉ or TG4. TV3 received €910,000 to fund four documentaries and Setanta €335,000 for three programmes.

Mr Curran said he questioned why licence-fee money was going to TV3 when its previous owners Canwest had sold the business for €265 million to Doughty Hanson two years ago and figures indicated that it was making €20 million a year in profit.

"Good luck to them. They are a private company, but does that mean they have to take a top slice of the licence fee?" he said.

He said the licence fee increase had seen RTÉ substantially reduce its dependency on foreign-made programmes and EastEnders is the only acquired series on week nights on RTÉ One after 6pm.

He also rejected suggestions that RTÉ was too heavily dependent on reality television programmes, saying that the figure spent on entertainment had increased by 52 per cent since the licence-fee hike in 2003, but that spending on factual programming had increased by 150 per cent and on drama by 129 per cent in the same time frame.

TV3's head of news Andrew O'Hanlon said the management of the broadcaster had a substantial stake in the business and were also running it on behalf of Doughty Hanson.

He hoped the Broadcasting Bill would "correct the anomaly" that a fund, which was originally set up for independent broadcasters and producers, was being used by RTÉ which is already in receipt of the bulk of licence-fee money.