RTÉ’s problems: TV funding unfit for purpose

RTÉ boss Dee Forbes is 15 months into the job, and Ireland waits on for news of how she plans to tackle the challenges facing the country’s mainstream broadcaster. 

There’s been a not altogether surprising suggestion that the €160 licence fee should be higher — Ms Forbes thinks it should be doubled — and vague, management-speak waffle about making choices, adapting to change, reorganising, hacking away at duplication, getting smaller and nimbler, and focusing on content, the last being corporate argot for programmes.

There will be job losses which, with the company’s land sale in Dublin, aims to help in the short term to plug holes in the balance sheet. Yet the problems thrown up by an industry architecture turned inside out by technology, and its impact on viewing options and advertisers, remain to be dealt with.

A €320 licence would be untenable, since it would increase sharply an evasion rate that is already Europe’s highest. And why, many viewers would ask, should they pay more for a service they might not choose to use much, preferring instead the content they can get from Google, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Sky, YouTube, and the BBC and watch often for free on PCs, laptops, and mobile phones?

Casting around to see how other European countries are attempting to deal with the online revolution, while protecting the traditional values of public service broadcasting hasn’t been helpful. So-called laptop levies and discrete taxes paid by all households, regardless of whether they have a traditional television set, could reasonably be resisted by people who resent being asked to pay for services — be it high-quality journalism and documentaries or popular
entertainment — they choose not to use.

It isn’t a new difficulty. It emerged with the introduction of commercial television in the 1950s. It’s just that now the 20th century licence seems an even greater anachronism. The €15 licence fee increase as proposed in a Dáil report seems reasonable, since RTÉ still has a public service journalism and information remit. Journalism and information doesn’t grow on trees. But that, too, would be simply another short term stop-gap. We might have to wait another 15 months for Ms Forbes’ blueprints.


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