RTE should live by the market and not subsidies and a TV Tax

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Eamon Delaney      Irish Independent

Are you enjoying RTE’s quality coverage of the big events at the moment, like on TV’s Prime Time or Claire Byrne Live or the Late Debate over on radio. No, me neither. I haven’t seen their coverage of possible war over North Korea, or analysis of Trump’s antics or debate about whether Leo’s taking the right line on Brexit.

That’s because RTE still clings to the outmoded idea that because the Dail continues to shut down for its ridiculously long holidays, then so should they – at least they, as in the big hitters of RTE’s current affairs department.

But this isn’t the only outmoded idea that RTE clings too. It also clings to the licence fee – the ‘RTE tax’- and incredibly it wants to have it raised, to pay for this summer shutdown ‘public service’. This was the surely optimistic try-on of RTE Director General Dee Forbes when she raised it two weeks ago.

The fact that this proposal was made in the same month that we heard of all those mega RTE salaries, at a station that is losing 20 million euros a year, proves the critics wrong about the state broadcaster not producing comedy. This is comedy gold, except we’re paying for it! Once again, viewers must be wondering if this is why they have to pay a special licence fee to the State broadcaster.

Interestingly, it was exactly this time two years ago when I also wrote about the great RTE summer switch off. At that time, we had lots of political activity and an intense focus on what the next Government would look like, but you wouldn’t have known it from our national broadcaster which was on its customary seasonal shut down. By contrast, TV3 was producing nightly current affairs show, including a‘Late Review’, as well as the Vincent Browne show.

Indeed, it seemed, then as now, that TV3 was putting out more news programming than RTÉ, and the same with Newstalk and Today FM. And yet none of these were getting any share of the licence fee. Nor was it just current affairs: the summer diet of RTE TV continues to be full of repeats and US imports. Its like the Montrose staff just stick in a tape and go home.

So just how valid is the ‘public service’ remit of RTÉ anymore, which merits this special tax?Maybe it exists for GAA coverage, documentaries and late night radio drama, but it is a shrinking function, from a bygone era. And viewers and Government know that.

One plan has been to replace the fee with a wider broadcasting charge, benefiting other suppliers, but this has been scrapped. Meanwhile, an interesting and separate proposal came from Timmy Dooley TD of Fianna Fail, to help fund independent radio, but this hasn’t been picked up on.

In reality, the media landscape is changing fast and in a way that recognises no borders or ‘public service remit’. Viewers watch TV, from all over the globe, on their tablets and phones. Why should they pay an extra RTE tax on broadcasting, when they pay UPC or another provider, for their TV, usually bundled with their broadband and phone. Why should they pay twice?

It is tough for RTÉ. They have suffered pay cuts and redundancies and got into shape for the new media world, only to be faced by the intense competition of a very open market. And these RTÉ cuts are in marked contrast to the other commercial State companies, incidentally, which ignored Government directions on reforms.

But technology has caught up with the dominance of State TV channels everywhere. Huge amounts of advertising revenue now leave Ireland every week and go to Google and Sky. Irish television has to compete against a great amount of English-language broadcasting from elsewhere. This really hurts RTÉ but also TV3 and UTV. However, the latter have to get on with it, whereas RTÉ expects a dig out from the State.

One argument is that RTÉ should abandon advertising altogether and go for a pure licence-fee model, like the BBC. But, at present, RTÉ is having it both ways, and gets the licence fee and the ad revenue. It thus drives down the price of advertising, thereby further unfairly damaging its competitors. RTÉ can effectively cross-subsidise from the licence fee and continue to run deficits, as it has done for many years.

RTÉ also distorts the market for newspapers and other media outlets, since the licence fee allows it to create a daily news website which is a direct rival to the newspapers, some of whom now have pay walls. All of this is very unfair and distorts the market.

Granted, RTE is selling Montrose land and seeking more cuts and redundancies but those big star salaries are an embarrassment. Its not as if some of these stars would get the same elsewhere. And what about the many people in RTE administration who are on much higher salaries than they’d get in an independent media company – working alongside colleagues on much less. Old habits endure, and the unions dominate.

And yet there is no reason why RTE cant get fit and lean and fully embrace the open market of competition. The station still gets very high ratings and it shouldn’t need a constant leg up from the State – and nor our licence fee. The other radio and TV stations don’t get it, after all and nor do the newspapers. It’s time Montrose faced the open market like everyone else.

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