Ireland needs RTE to get more resources

28th March 2001

RTE is a fantastic organisation. On a budget of around £180 million it manages to maintain three national television stations, four national radio stations and an excellent on-line resource for Irish people abroad.

Its current affairs and news coverage is excellent and in particular Radio 1 must be one of the best radio stations in the world. I’ve never heard of a talk-based station holding such a market share in such a competitive market. Listen to Radio 1 for a week and you will have a very good overview of contemporary life in Ireland.

When you consider RTE’s coverage of sport, politics, arts, religious affairs, children’s programmes, among others, then I think that RTE is excellent value for money.

I’ve just read through RTE’s submission to the Government looking for a £50 increase in the TV licence fee. After all I’ve just said about RTE you’d think I would be supportive. Instead, I think the licence fee should be reduced.

The reason is that the licence is not a progressive tax. It takes no account of a person’s ability to pay.

RTE break down the new fee at 33p a day and when you look at it like that it’s not a lot of money. But the vast majority of people will end up with a bill for £120 and for a huge number of people in our society that is a massive bill.

What should happen is that the licence fee should be reduced to £60 and the Government should match it pound for pound with a public service broadcasting grant.

In this way RTE would get their money, the Government wouldn’t be seen to be hiking the licence fee (which would generate far more political heat than the increase is worth) and RTE would be free of a major cause of bad feeling against them.

The new public service broadcasting grant would cover major loss-making areas such as the transmission system in outlying areas and programmes like, ahem, Oireachtas Report.

Not only should RTE get the additional funds but I would go as far as to say that it is a vital national interest that they do so.

We are a small fish in the big English-speaking broadcasting pond. The makers of ‘Friends’, for example, wouldn’t consider Ireland a very important market. But it is easy for that programme to soak up advertising revenue in this market.

Now ‘Friends’ might give us a few chuckles but very little else. The production and acting resources are generated elsewhere. Probably more important is that the lifestyle, location and role models portrayed are from places other than our own.

This doesn’t matter in one show. But if this trend takes hold over a whole range of shows, lifestyles, music, places and people then it must have a debilitating effect on those who are outside this loop.

Our children, who live a huge part of their lives through the media, will soon see that their Irish experience is inferior and invalid. The inferiority complex follows shortly after.

So to make the shows, documentaries, sit-coms and arts that reflect our way of life in our situation we need resources. Other media organisations have vast resources gleaned from global markets.

On the other hand, the Irish market is small. And that is why Irish broadcasting needs the money.

There may be some debate about whether RTE should get all the loot and that is a valid debate.

At the moment RTE commissions about £20 million worth of programmes from the independent sector in Ireland. This is vital to sustain expertise in Ireland together with training for the future and returns for people who invest in broadcasting.

In a way the whole argument is about confidence. Have we the confidence to believe in ourselves and portray all that is good and bad in the modern media?

We see how successful we can be in modern music (U2) and how successful we can be when we join up the strands of our traditions (Riverdance).

Sky, the Beeb or CNN can never do the job in broadcasting that we can do for ourselves. We just need to resource it properly.


As well as that…

Waiting for the wires

RTE are to introduce four new channels when digital television comes on-line.

These are big plans.

Some might say that RTE should concentrate on the channels they have now.

And I wonder if they are not going to be taken over by events. Every web address now has the capability to become a TV station.

All that is holding the net back in this respect is the inability of current wires to take the load.

Presuming that this problem can be overcome, TV stations are going to be everywhere. The whole point then comes down to content.

General channels with consecutive programmes will become a thing of the past. People will be able to choose when to watch programmes and in what order.

So RTE should be getting out of the transmission systems business and sticking to programme making. Original content is hard to come by and that is why sport is so attractive – every game is a new programme.

Direct automatic payment will also make things easier for RTE. Would you pay 50p to watch the Late Late Show? If so, RTE could be making around £300,000 per show.

They wouldn’t need a licence fee then.