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What should RTÉ be?

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

The now-annual debate about our national broadcaster has reared its head again, with staff at RTÉ receiving an email from RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes a few days ago claiming that the financial situation at the station is ‘unlike anything we have seen before’.
It certainly feels like something most of us have heard before, because for seven of the last ten years, RTÉ has recorded an annual deficit, this time of €13 million. It is becoming increasingly obvious that RTÉ in its current format is operating unsustainably model. Something will have to give, sooner or later – but what will that be? More importantly, what should it be? What should it not be?
Being a media broadcaster in a small country in the digital era is not easy. Being a national public-service media broadcaster in a small country is less easy. Technology is shifting constantly. Social media and streaming services like Netflix provide entertainment. Experiences like virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence are emerging, transforming how we consume media. It makes little old Fair City look a bit behind the times.
This raises two big questions – firstly, what should RTÉ be? A public-service broadcaster or an entertainment service? There’s a big difference between the two. Secondly, how do we pay for it?
It’s a more complex debate than 700 words allows, but is reflective of a global trend where public-service broadcasting is under pressure from commercial interests, governments and the public. And let’s be clear – the solution is far more challenging than simply cutting salaries. The top ten RTÉ presenters are paid €3 million in total; the deficit is €13 million. Fire them all, and you’ve still only poured a thimbleful of water on the fire.
That said, there is an argument to be made restructuring and nurturing and promoting new talent, of which there is plenty. Contrary to what Montrose appears to believe, the viewing public is quite open to new faces appearing on its screens. But talent also deserves to be paid.
Back to what RTÉ should be, should stand for. Alarmingly, it has been suggested that proposed cost-saving measures would impact on the broadcaster’s ability to deliver on regional activities, sport, external commissioning, Irish-language support, special events, archives and genres like drama, arts, education and religion. The RTÉ orchestras, funded in part through the licence fee, have been under scrutiny for some time.
These are exactly the items that a public service broadcaster, by its very raison d’etre has a duty to promote and support, alongside news, current affairs and sport, and any threat to absolve themselves of their responsibilities in these areas by citing funding difficulties should be firmly resisted. Arts and culture is already desperately under-supported. Shutting down regional offices and services like Lyric FM is the opposite of what should be happening given Ireland’s dire regional imbalance. The relevant government departments have a real responsibility here too. What’s lost now will be gone forever.
And of course, the unique selling point of broadcasters like RTÉ is live TV; there is still very much room for that live, simultaneous, publicly shared experience, be it sport, entertainment or a big event. Love it or loathe it, a look at Twitter during the Rose of Tralee proves that without a doubt. RTÉ excels too at things like investigative journalism and documentaries.
Last year, it was recommended that RTÉ seek a €55 million annual increase in government funding to boost its fortunes; instead it received an increase of €8.6  million in the last budget.  The TV licence fee, which raises €221 million, has not been increased in a number of years, and the evasion rate is somewhere between 12 percent and 14 percent; that’s a loss of over €40 million in potential revenue. Why do so many people not want to pay, and how can they be encouraged – by RTÉ – to contribute? Entirely separately, can RTÉ really afford to sit in a 23-acre campus in the most expensive postcode in Ireland?
RTÉ now finds itself as a crossroads; torn between commercial interests and the public good in a changing world. Now, more than ever, we badly need impartial broadcasting and public service content. The question is, do we want to pay for it?