The future of RTÉ is a balancing act; 300 jobs to go

“Adapt or die.” These were the words of RTÉ’s director general Dee Forbes yesterday. She was announcing the sell-off of nine acres of the state broadcaster’s land and the culling of up to 300 jobs.

The future of RTÉ is a balancing act; 300 jobs to go

Against a backdrop of a €110m decline in licence fee income since 2008, losses of €10m for the organisation last year and the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime: If video killed the radio star, then streamed content is slowly murdering terrestrial TV.

“It’s kind of like the horse, you know? The horse was good until we had the car. The age of broadcast TV will probably last until 2030.”

Those had been the words in November 2014 of Reed Hastings, chief executive and co-founder of steaming service Netflix.

That was at a time when 190,000 Irish people had a Netflix subscription. By December 2015, the number had risen to 330,000 and, by 2020 it is estimated more than 500,000 people here will be subscribers.

So Ms Forbes’s news surely came as no surprise yesterday, at a time she described as “challenging”.

According to the latest Google Consumer Barometer, our smartphone use is 13% above the EU average, with 78% owning a smartphone and 36% using them to follow the news.

While ads and money follow the eyes, a plan to introduce a “household-based broadcasting charge” was finally abandoned in 2016 after five years of discussions around it.

The charge was to catch people who consume content on their phones and computers.

But streaming of hit shows aside news, live sport and homegrown content matter.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in ‘House of Cards’, which airs on streaming service Netflix.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in ‘House of Cards’, which airs on streaming service Netflix.

According to the most recent figures from Television Audience Measurement (TAM) Ireland and Nielsen, all three topped the most-viewed content on RTÉ last year.

The Late Late Toy Show’s TV average audience stood at 1.5m viewers, the highest across all programming.

It was followed by the Uefa Euro 2016 live game between Ireland and France which pulled in 1.26m viewers.

When it comes to adapting or dying Charles Darwin’s assertion always rings true: It is not the strongest, nor the most intelligent of the species that survive, but those most responsive to change.

However, in this case, a balance needs to be struck between being a commercial content provider and a State broadcaster of objective news and cultural commentary.

300 jobs to go as RTÉ strives to restructure

RTÉ is cutting up to 300 jobs and selling off nine acres of land for €75m in a major restructuring plan.

Dee Forbes, the state broadcaster’s director general, cited licence fee evasion, Brexit and a changing commercial landscape as the reasons behind the plan.

“Evasion rates [in Ireland] are among the highest in Europe at about 19%, so as a result, our income has dropped,” she said yesterday.

“On top of that, the commercial landscape has become very, very, challenging. We probably lost as an organisation, towards the end of last year, around €10m.”

While a “media licence fee” had been proposed for people watching RTÉ on their computers, phones and other screen devices, the idea was abandoned and now a plan is in place to change how the TV licence fee (€160) is collected.

“You take somewhere like Italy where evasion rates were very, very poor — they linked licence fee collection to your electricity bill and things really improved.

“So, we are working with Government on that piece and there is an expectation a tender will happen around the collection of the licence fee later this year,” said Ms Forbes.

Yesterday, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan TD said the joint Oireachtas committee on communications has started a process of examining what new funding arrangements might be possible, for the TV licence fee.

Separately, the land which is being sold off for €75m includes the location of the set for Fair City — but Ms Forbes was adamant the soap would not be outsourced.

“I have confirmed a number of times that Fair City is not going out.

“The Fair City lot where it sits right now is on that land but that will be moved further up the campus to allow for the sale so Fair City is not being outsourced,” she said.

The money from the sale will be used to invest in technology and to carry out building renovations.

Commenting on the changing media landscape of on-demand consumption, Ms Forbes said as a state broadcaster it will need to find a balance.

“In terms of how you put a TV channel together, it’s a mix of content. We are the national broadcaster and we strive to ensure we can represent the best in Irish content number one and then, of course, we have to buy in content from around the world,” she said.

“Consumers, viewers, listeners, are no longer deciding that they want to watch channels all day, they are deciding to watch content, what I want to do with everybody here [RTÉ] is to bring us to a place where we are focussed on content and how we distribute that content to our viewers and listeners.”

She added that the process of voluntary and involuntary redundancies would begin in the coming months.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) issued a statement yesterday when news of job losses was announced.

“At a time when journalism is under threat, RTÉ must protect the public service ethos of RTÉ,” read the NUJ statement.

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