Double the TV licence fee or say goodbye to Irish programming
Public-service television costs money and will cease to exist if we do not fund it
Television licence evasion ranges between 15 per cent and 18 per cent with an estimated revenue loss of €40 million annually. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Are we in Ireland serious about being Irish? If so, we need to double the television licence fee. Yes: double it. Much has been written and debated around television licence fees over many years, but very few have called for what is actually needed.
Public-service television costs money and if we do not pay for it it will not exist, pure and simple.
All costs have increased, yet the television licence fee has remained static. Various boards of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) and various ministers for communications have failed to support any increases including a basic increase to keep pace with inflation. Indeed, ministers have cut the television licence in real terms by taking funds for local radio news, commercial television broadcasters and other funding out of the original television licence fee.
The Government must act on two fronts.
Firstly, television licence evasion ranges between 15 per cent and 18 per cent with an estimated revenue loss of €40 million annually. Which equates to the current total statutory spend by RTÉ on independent productions for its schedule of programmes.
Not only is it unfair on the honest, hard-working Irish people who pay their licence fee, the €40 million deficit compromises the quality of service they receive. We need to crack down on licence fee evaders.
Secondly, if the Government does not substantially increase the television licence or introduce a broadcast household charge, we will not have any Irish television content worth watching.
Yes, we can develop an economy and build new industries but at what expense? Without an indigenous culture what worth will a thriving economy be? One with a rich Irish culture and life reflected for all the citizens or just a region of the soon to be non-European UK or the 51st state of Donald Trump’s US? The decision the Government makes on the funding of television into the future will define who we are. Do we have leaders who can make a clear decision that will be remembered for decades as to when we decided to invest in who we are?
I would double the television licence fee but remove most of the commercial income and dependency on the commercial world by RTÉ. As it stands, commercial television is close to the edge due to size of the market here. By making existing commercial television networks the only place to advertise to Irish audiences, this would build a sustainable commercial alternative to RTÉ in TV3, raising the quality of output of both. Without new funds, both will struggle to sustain audience in the hyper-competitive digital landscape.
From the age of 13 I have worked all my life in the entertainment business, having started out in pirate radio before moving into the music business. The demise of the music business is now being mirrored in television. Just as it is now virtually impossible for new Irish music acts to get airplay in Ireland, soon Irish programme-makers will struggle to fund any scale of production. A lowering of production quality drives audiences to watch higher-quality non-Irish content on other channels. Once lost, they are gone forever. We are now building a generation who consume, on smartphone first, content dominated by non-Irish offerings.
Are we getting value for the €160 the television licence costs? In the UK, where the population is 65 million, a television licence costs £147 (€164.30). In Austria and Denmark you will pay €335.
A significant number of homes in Ireland already pay a high premium for television services from suppliers such as Sky. If you are taking all packages you could be paying more than €1,200 a year. Networks such as Sky and Virgin take substantial revenue out of Ireland every year without any requirement to spend any money on Irish content. Yet they broadcast Irish content without having to pay a euro for the privilege of using this content to generate their subscriptions.
All of this is happening when the Government is promoting Creative Ireland, a refreshing idea of investing in our culture. Are we serious about supporting a creative Ireland, yet unwilling to pay for the most engaging way to share Irish creativity?
So we have options: do nothing, reimagine the television licence system, fund from general exchequer or indeed scrap all public broadcasting.
Over to you, Minister for Communications Denis Naughten and the Dáil sub-Committee on Communications and Natural Resources. This is your time to lead and leave a legacy for future generations.
Larry Bass is founder and chief executive of ShinAwil, a member of the Irish Film Board and former member of the BAI