CHALLENGING TIMES AT RTE

 

Few will envy Mr Bob Collins his task as Director General of RTE. The glory days of State broadcasting are gone if indeed they ever existed in reality. The globalisation of the broadcast media places extraordinary competitive pressures on a national broadcasting service such as RTE, operating in a small country with a tiny economic catchment area.

The task of seeking to maintain world class standards with a miniscule economic base is not unique to broadcasting. It faces many institutions in small countries - newspapers, for example. The particular difficulty which RTE has to deal with is that while it is asked to compete commercially with the world giants, it is also expected to discharge a costly public service function.

And all the while it is subject to political control by the Government of the day. It is 30 years since the late Sean Lemass described RTE as "an arm of Government" and direct political interventions now few and far between. But the conviction remains among politicians and RTE personnel alike that when the chips are down the political powers that he have the final say.

Mr Collins faces formidable challenges on the commercial, technological and programming fronts. But as the first Director General from a creative rather than a technical or administrative background he faces a particular challenge to show his independence of spirit and his leadership qualities. Much expected of him by programme makers, journalists and creative personnel at all levels.

Mr Collins's task will not have been eased by today's reports that RTE will show a profit of just £1 million for 1996 and a loss of some £7 million on its core broadcasting business. These disappointing figures can easily be explained by the rising cost of imported programmes and the £5 million plus annual cost of providing programming for Telifis Na Gaeilge. But they also graphically underline RTE's frail financial state even in the midst of an economic boom when advertising revenue is buoyant.

The new Director General is right to place a high priority on the need to deliver a distinctively Irish quality programme service. RTE cannot hope to compete with the deep pockets of Sky Television et al but there remains a real public appetite for high standard Irish programming. RTE's recent record in this regard has, at best, been patchy. There is a strong sense that the station's current affairs section has lost the investigative edge of a decade ago, while the station's drama output remains weak. Even some of its most ardent defenders now agree that the station has become increasingly cautious and staid in its programming policy.

One of Mr Collins's most pressing tasks is the extremely difficult one of restoring the badly depleted morale of staff at the station. RTE has a proud history and many strengths. It must play to these strengths if it is to provide the kind of quality Irish programming that is required. A first step must be to rediscover its sense of confidence. That requires courage and skill in leadership. It also presupposes a political regime which is at once supportive of general policy objectives but which stays firmly hands off in day to day broadcasting matters.