The vital role of public service broadcasters is being threatened by new viewer habits, rival media, and loss of revenue, says Anne O’Leary
RTÉ has been Ireland’s national broadcaster since 1926 in radio, and 1961 in television.
In seven years, it will have reached a century of service, adapting alongside a nation that has changed radically.
Throughout it all, RTÉ has remained a stalwart reminder of stability and constancy.
For any business to survive, it needs financial support, and it has to adapt to changing environments. It’s as simple as that. No matter what purpose it has or what service it provides, the numbers must add up, and the strategy has to be aligned with the needs of the customer.
This seems simple, but it becomes more difficult when a business is at the mercy of another agency to generate a significant part of its income and budget. A company’s lack of control over its own operating costs can ruin a good business. This is the case with RTÉ.
In 2014, when I was appointed to the board of RTÉ, it became apparent to me, and to the others who had been appointed alongside me, that we had a challenging task.
I’m honoured to have been reappointed to the board this month, and we’re determined to bring RTÉ through the transformation that it needs and deserves.
I welcome the Government decision, earlier this month, to establish a Commission on the Future of Irish Public Service Broadcasting. Public service media is at an existential crossroads the world over. RTÉ is not alone in its struggle against obliterated business models and changing media consumption and it is appropriate that we consider, as a country, what’s important to us from the wide range of services provided by RTÉ, and how that should be funded.
The demands placed on RTÉ — demands those in the company are striving to meet — far outweigh its income, whether that is income collected by the TV licence or commercially. Both revenue streams have been insufficient and declining for some time, yet, in parallel, RTÉ is expected to both continue providing a vast amount of services, while modernising and adapting to the rapidly changing consumption habits of audiences.
Countless independent reviews have verified as much. Last year, the Broadcast Authority of Ireland said “urgent action” was needed and recommended that RTÉ get an increase in annual funding of €30m.
A cross-party Joint Oireachtas Committee also recommended that the TV licence be reformed.
RTÉ’s commercial revenue has been dropping each year for the last four years — it is now €100m less than it was 10 years ago. Much of that income has migrated to global media companies such as Google and Facebook, whose advertising is largely unregulated. RTÉ meanwhile, is restricted by regulation to half the advertising time of its commercial competitors, leaving it with little opportunity to create the revenue needed to implement the new ideas and streamlined services demanded by Irish audiences.
Around €50m is lost to the station every year, because of a failure at governmental level to reform the patently broken TV licence system, another argument that is constantly laid at the feet of RTÉ as a reason the service should be of a much higher quality.
But 13% of those licence funds are simply not recovered, leaving RTÉ operating on far less of the required budget. Added to this is the fact that Ireland has one of the highest TV licence collection costs in Europe, with €16.43m, in 2018, going to An Post for providing the service. What other government department would be expected to leave a potential €50m funding on the table annually and continue to pay over the odds for an outdated service that doesn’t deliver?
In saying all of this, RTÉ must cut its cloth to measure — and it has been. Operating costs have been cut by 23% in the last 10 years. Negotiations are ongoing to achieve a 200-headcount reduction next year, as well as other staff cost-reductions.
By 2024, RTÉ will have reduced its footprint in Donnybrook by 50%. Costs will be reduced by €60m in the next three years.
Any assertion that the broadcaster has been found wanting with respect to reform cannot be justified. Does it have more to do? Absolutely. But it cannot do so alone. It has legal and moral obligations to the State and its audiences, and it needs to be supported as these decisions are made.
One of the changes announced last month was the decision to move Lyric FM from Limerick to Cork. This would have contributed to the much-needed cost-savings, but, at the request of the Government, that decision has now been deferred until the work of the commission is complete.
Communications Minister Richard Bruton announced that, in response to RTÉ’s need for governmental support, it will be given €50m over the next five years; €10m per annum. This support is welcome, but it won’t recoup the losses from the manifestly inefficient TV licence system.
RTÉ has been central to the creation of how Ireland is perceived in the global public imagination. Public service media enables a country to understand itself socially, culturally, and economically.
RTÉ is more than news and sport: It is the biggest commissioner of programming from Ireland’s independent creative sector, showcasing Irish storytelling onscreen through TV drama and feature films.
The Young Offenders is one of the most successful home-produced dramas in the last few years.
The show is one of a number of home-grown dramas being enjoyed on RTÉ, but, because of a broken revenue stream, there isn’t enough, and people are turning to UK- and US-produced content.
Consequently, our creative talent continue to move away, as they struggle to find work at home. This is counter to the Government’s ambition to double employment in the audio-visual sector, and to make Ireland a global centre of excellence in media production, encompassing film, television drama, and animation.
Yet, in the face of this adversity, RTÉ’s audience figures continue to demonstrate that the Irish public does want home-grown content: 1.7m people watched this year’s Late Late Toy Show; 2m of us listen to RTÉ Radio every week; and the website is experiencing its highest engagement figures since stats began, in 2014, with 10m page views recorded for the third month in a row in September.
Everyone wants RTÉ to change and adapt with the times, and to provide the kind of service Irish people deserve.
The executive of RTÉ, therefore, should be focusing its efforts on planning and developing new productions, programming, and platforms, to showcase the many facets of what it means to be Irish and to engage young people in a life-long relationship with Irish broadcasting, delivering on its vision for RTÉ for modern Ireland.
Instead, RTÉ is being forced to fight for its very survival.
One can only hope that the Commission on the Future of Irish Public Service Broadcasting considers how this public service should be delivered and funded, and that it provides a way forward for RTÉ, allowing for the development of fresh talent and the beginning of a new era in Irish public television. I look forward to its report.
Anne O’Leary, CEO of Cork company Kinematik, has been a board member of RTÉ since 2014 and is chair of its Audit and Risk Committee.