RTE should just abandon the State crutches – and face the market

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Eamon Delaney

Last week, it was revealed that despite all its cuts elsewhere (selling off land, and reforming its orchestras) our national broadcaster is still running its Aertel service, the antiquated tele text system which has been well overtaken by the internet and which most of us didn’t know it existed.

The service costs €700,000 a year as a digital version and has cost up to €3m over 4 years. This is the kind of money RTE could use to create a good drama, which it sorely needs.

Apparently, the station planned to dump the service some years ago but a number of rural TDs wrote in to complain arguing that the service was still used by many elderly people. The charity Age Action confirms this but the numbers are tiny. The BBC shut down its teletext service Ceefax in 2012.

The decision to hang on to the archaic service confirms a strange mindset at RTE but it also illustrates the utterly unfair advantage that RTE has in dominating the media landscape here. Montrose would sooner outsource it’s children’s TV or a good dramas like the restaurant series ‘Raw’, than make serious cuts in the huge salaries of its celebrity presenters or in its many layers of management – over 100 people on over 100k in 2017. Or scrap an outdated service like Aertel.

But in running a continuous news service like Aertel, however antiquated, RTE is able to provide yet another news outlet, subsidised by the State, which competes with its independent competitors.

As it is, RTÉ already distorts the market for newspapers and other news sites, since the licence fee allows it to create a news website which is a direct rival to the newspapers, some of which (like this newspaper) now have pay walls. This is completely unfair market advantage which the newspapers have been curiously slow to protest about. But then presumably the newspapers need RTE as part of the mutual news cycle, and vice versa.

But this unfair advantage only compounds the much larger and fundamental distortion of our broadcasting market. In the UK, the BBC lives by the licence fee alone. But in Ireland, RTÉ is having it both ways, and gets the licence fee and advertising 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.

Incredibly, RTE Director General Dee Forbes has called for an increase in the licence fee, saying it is too cheap in relative terms and the station needs the money. This is understandable, given the financial strain at the station, but it is also kind of amazing, given that many of us would question the ‘public service’ remit when news can be got, just as well, from many other sources.

The idea of an Irish TV station, projecting ‘Irish values’, is surely something from the era of compulsory Mass, Eamon de Valera and Gaybo. The world has changed, and so has the media landscape, and its still changing.

The contemporary media world recognises no borders or ‘public service remit’. Viewers watch TV, from all over the globe, on their tablets and phones, and already pay Virgin or another provider for the service, often bundled with their broadband.

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. This is unlike most other semi State companies, incidentally.

But technology has caught up with the dominance of State TV channels everywhere. Huge amounts of ad revenue now leave Ireland and go to Google and Sky and Irish television has to compete against a great amount of English-language broadcasting from elsewhere.

And yet there is no reason why RTE can’t fully embrace the open market of competition. The station still gets high ratings and it shouldn’t need a constant leg up from the State. Other radio and TV stations don’t get it, and nor do the newspapers. It’s time Montrose ditched the Aertel and faced the open market like everyone else.