The head of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has claimed UTV’s planned entry into the TV market in the Republic has highlighted major anomalies in broadcasting legislation.
BAI chairman Bob Collins said the Belfast-based media group would have far fewer obligations than RTÉ, TV3, or TG4 as it was only applying for a content provision contract.
Under the existing legislation, Mr Collins said UTV — unlike most other TV and radio stations — would not be obliged to pay the broadcasting levy which funds BAI activities.
“On the face of it, it is unfair but that is what the law provides for at the moment,” he told the Oireachtas communications committee. Welcoming UTV’s entry to the market in the Republic as “an important development”, he said it would provide an additional source of choice for Irish audiences as well as creating domestic content.
However, he also warned it would inevitably lead to increased competition for rival stations, particularly TV3, because ITV programmes were a major element of its scheduling.
Mr Collins also expressed concern about the commercial sponsorship of current affairs programmes after independent TD Mattie McGrath criticised the association between Danske Bank and RTÉ Radio 1 programme Drivetime.
“It is inappropriate but it is not precluded by law,” said Mr Collins, adding that such sponsorship posed difficulties for any broadcaster as it would lead to complications and potential conflicts of interest.
He acknowledged that all TV and radio stations provided some level of public service broadcasting, but stressed the legislation only defined RTÉ and TG4 as public service broadcasters for an entitlement to a share of the TV licence fee.
The committee heard the BAI’s recently published five-year review of public service broadcast funding was necessary in light of major changes in technology and how viewers accessed content.
The BAI was conscious of a growing imbalance between Irish-produced and international programmes, the committee heard.
The BAI had recommended, against the advice of its own consultants, that public funding of RTÉ should be increased with the provision that it should be matched by a reduction in commercial income from advertising and sponsorship to allow commercial stations like TV3 a greater share of such revenue.
Mr Collins also criticised the existence of three different sets of rules governing advertising time limits on TV and radio and called for urgent changes to existing legislation. The hourly limits on advertising for public service TV stations like RTÉ are determined by the communications minister, for Communications, while the BAI sets the limits for commercial TV stations. However, the limits for radio stations are fixed by legislation. “It makes no sense,” said Mr Collins, who claimed the different rules created “potential and real unfairness”.
The BAI chairman said there was a solid argument for having the same limits for all TV and radio stations. However, he stressed that such a recommendation could only be achieved through a change in primary legislation. Several TDs including Fine Gael’s Patrick O’Donovan and independent Michael Healy-Rae accused the BAI of providing RTÉ with a safety net because local radio stations were not given any TV licence revenue. However, Mr Collins, a former RTÉ director general, criticised Mr Healy-Rae for “wrong, unfair, and inappropriate” remarks that the BAI was effectively throwing money at RTÉ or acting as its “mudguard”.
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