RTÉ can reshape itself with vigorous strategic change


OPINION:The broadcaster will reform where necessary to survive

THE FIRST half of 2011 has been studded with public service broadcast moments. The previous government’s collapse and general election in February saw massive audiences taking up RTÉ’s services across all platforms. Our staff and facilities then moved on immediately to plan for the royal and presidential visits. That remarkable week in May also saw the public ceremonies for the late Dr Garret FitzGerald, taken up in turn for broadcast in those busiest of days.

If there was a moment that summed up the national shared experience, it was the College Green event for Barack Obama. The huge crowd present was the visible story. And yet the tens of thousands there were joined by 1.1 million live on RTÉ’s Six-One News.

Behind the public effort was a resource and policy commitment innate to public service. RTÉ not only provided its coverage at home, it made it available to all broadcasters worldwide, and to TV3 at home, to maximise access. Thus the scenes from Ireland were seen on countless channels and sites worldwide. The service was tightly budgeted, but it was not commercial.

This is, in the plainest terms, RTÉ’s job: bringing access to the audience and serving a shared public purpose.

This week I have been meeting RTÉ’s staff, in large numbers, to invite their commitment to a three-year plan of change. The plan will be driven by a refreshed commitment to RTÉ’s public purpose. That purpose will be expressed in programme choices. But it will also be expressed in the balance between the public and commercial dimensions of what RTÉ does and how we do it; and, importantly, in a conscious dimension of partnership and sharing of resources. The coverage of the State visits was a sign of that intent.

Change is unavoidable. As RTÉ faces into its 50th anniversary, questions surround the future of public broadcasting. RTÉ is faced not only with severe shrinkage in its commercial income but with a serial erosion of its public funding base.

The dual-funding model brings complications, but succeeds in bringing all of RTÉ’s services to the Irish public at a cost of just 45 cents per day per paying household. By comparison, the BBC paid more for the broadcast rights for Formula 1 than RTÉ receives in total in public funds each year.

But RTÉ’s relatively high reliance on commercial income is also an exposure. When recession bit, the fall-off in broadcast advertising in Ireland was the most extreme in Europe. RTÉ experienced a sudden loss of €70 million in annual commercial revenues from mid-2008. We responded by rapidly cutting costs. The cuts in pay volunteered by staff were the first in the public sector. In 18 months we cut €82 million, or 17 per cent of our cost base. Staff numbers reduced by 200, or nearly 9 per cent, over two years. At year end 2010, RTÉ was reporting a deficit of just €5 million while delivering the new national free-to-air digital TV network, Saorview, on time and on budget from its own resources.

The expectation for 2011 should have been to move to break-even, or even a small surplus. This would have meant that RTÉ would have managed its way through the worst commercial collapse in its history. It was not to be. Decisions in the Budget last December, along with other recent cost impositions on the public side, added financial burdens on RTÉ totalling up to €20 million per year. When added to the normal cyclical patterns, this threatened to result in a deficit for 2011 of the order of €30 million.

Other unplanned external factors, including the two State visits, subsequently threatened to push this to €34 million. Following remedial action, RTÉ is now on target to cut that projected deficit by half to an expected net deficit of €17 million for 2011, with further restructuring in 2012 designed to ensure a break-even result in 2013. But that scenario requires stability in RTÉ’s funding.

In the broader landscape there is to be a review of public broadcasting and its funding, and a possible move from a TV licence fee to a universal household media charge. There are demands from commercial broadcasters for more access to the licence fee. In the UK, successive governments have resisted “top-slicing” the licence fee for fear of damaging public broadcasting. Here, RTÉ’s share of the much smaller licence fund has been cut three times in eight years.

RTÉ cannot control public policy decisions. It can, however, reshape itself through vigorous strategic change. All aspects of our structures and work practices are to be reviewed and, where necessary, altered. The organisation’s divisional structure – with the television, radio and news divisions, and others, managing their affairs with a slim central service hub – will also be changed as we seek the leanest operational mode. Shortly, a voluntary severance package will be offered. In three years’ time the organisation unquestionably will be smaller than it now is, seeking to maintain the widest public services on the slimmest cost base.

Other changes will be more publicly noticed. There is a public expectation that RTÉ attract and retain outstanding broadcasters. RTÉ’s respect for the talent and professionalism of its front-line presenters is considerable. They are a vital connection between RTÉ and its audience and we do not underestimate their dedication, their talents or their audience appeal.

However, financial constraints dictate that that fee levels must reduce markedly from those applying in previous years. In 2009, an undertaking was given to reduce significantly the fee levels applying to the top 10 earners as contracts came up for renewal. RTÉ intends that by the time all of the existing contracts have been revisited, by end 2013, the payments total will have reduced by in excess of 30 per cent relative to the 2008 levels.

The core mission of public service delivery needs to be refreshed and renewed, accentuating what we do differently. At business level, the need to be both commercial and popular must never overbalance the public service nature of the service. While RTÉ expresses the challenge of coping with funding shortage, it should never overlook the privilege and responsibilities of public funding, especially in a recession.

It has been argued that RTÉ must allow its commercial competition “a level playing field”. It’s a superficially engaging plea. Yet RTÉ’s array of public delivery targets and reporting accountabilities remains uniquely wide and deep. The issue is not one of level playing fields; it is that RTÉ and the commercial broadcasters are required to shoot at significantly different goals.

Externally, the public service imperative will be expressed in a conscious drive toward partnerships. Some will be in areas such as arts, culture, sport, tourism, technology and education, where the broadcaster can support national endeavours. Others, as expressed in RTÉ’s recent offer of free online video content to national Irish newspapers, will be pursued on the basis that Irish media organisations, while properly competing on many fronts, share interests also in a global marketplace.

There is a tipping point approaching. The prize is simply that of sustaining public broadcasting. If, in three years’ time, the Irish public once again wishes to share in a sequence of major public events such as the royal and presidential visits, RTÉ must be there to provide that. The media world is rapidly evolving and RTÉ is initiating a transformation. That process has now begun.

Noel Curran is director general of RTÉ

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