The end of RTÉ 

1 September 2001

On the Tuesday night before Ireland’s General Election the incumbent Taoiseach, Fianna Fail’s Bertie Ahern, met Michael Noonan, the leader of the opposition party, Fine Gael, in a live television debate broadcast on RTÉ One television.

But before the debate had even begun, both men must have been acutely aware of the debate raging through Ireland’s national broadcaster. As both men arrived at the RTÉ studios, they were met by over 350 members of RTÉ staff – protesting against the severe financial crisis that RTÉ are going through.

RTÉ is funded both by television licence payments and by advertising. The licence fee is however one of the lowest licence fees in Europe and apart from a small rise late last year, has not risen for some years.

Each year RTÉ has sought an increase in the licence fee and each year since 1997, the Fianna Fail government has refused an increase. Síle de Valera, the Arts and Culture Minister, who is responsible for broadcasting, has consistently argued that RTÉ have not convinced her that it provides a value for money service.

But what sort of broadcasting service do the Irish get?

Ireland has four terrestrial TV channels and five national radio stations. In addition there are a growing number of local and regional commercial radio stations. Of the TV channels, two are run by RTÉ, one is an Irish language channel, and one is a commercial channel.

RTÉ’s two television channels have very different remits; RTÉ One provides a mix of News, Chat Shows, Films, Current Affairs and Drama. Approximately 70% of RTÉ One’s primetime output is home produced. Network Two on the other hand, concentrates on imported American shows such as Ally McBeal, Friends and Frasier, and shows all of RTÉ’s sports coverage. Apart from the sports, very little of Network 2’s output is home produced. RTÉ always try to ensure that Network 2 gets its American shows before Channel 4 in the UK.

TG4, the Irish language channel, is funded directly by the taxpayer. TG4 has produced some surprisingly popular programmes and has frequently shown great innovation within its restricted remit. Due to the nature of its programming nearly all of TG4’s output is home produced. TG4 is owned and operated by RTÉ but will shortly become an independent state broadcaster in it’s own right.

TV3, the commercial channel, has been a great disappointment. The major shareholders of TV3 are the Canadian network CanWest Global and the British TV Company Granada. TV3 has followed closely the example of Canada’s Global network and provides mostly live relays of ITV programmes from the UK. Since Granada own 45% of TV3, getting these programmes has never been a problem. To its credit, TV3 have provided an alternative news programme to RTÉ, but apart from providing good quality news programmes and a breakfast news programme, TV3’s cultural impact on Irish life has been minimal.

In addition, most Irish viewers can easily access the main UK TV channels – this has been a fact of life in Ireland since the early 1950s.

In such a TV market, RTÉ has to survive.

But it wasn’t always like that – from its inception in 1961 until as recently as 1998, RTÉ enjoyed a monopoly of Ireland’s legal TV airwaves. It was said by many that RTÉ grew complacent about its own position in Irish society. Change came far slower at RTÉ than at any other broadcaster. The Trades Unions were always powerful at RTÉ. For instance, ENG cameras purchased in 1977 could not be used for newsgathering until 1984. Even today, RTÉ do not produce a breakfast time news programme on TV because they cannot agree with the Unions how to provide this.

Although there was always a British alternative, RTÉ and RTÉ alone provided our country’s indigenous TV.

Since RTÉ had a TV monopoly, it could effectively charge what it liked for spot advertising. And if you didn’t like that, you couldn’t go anywhere else. For although Ulster Television was widely available across the Republic, the staunchly unionist owners of Ulster Television would rarely accept advertising money from the wicked South.

By the early 1980s, RTÉ was a fairly wealthy organisation. With a Fine Gael/Labour coalition government in power throughout much of the 1980s, RTÉ felt safe in its citadel in Montrose. Pirate radio was at its strongest then – the airwaves of Ireland were filled with stations and the government seemed to be letting the pirates get away with it. Also, at a time of high unemployment in Ireland, it seemed to many that one had to have a relative working in RTÉ in order to get work there. RTÉ was safe from government attention, as the coalition partners were completely unable to agree on providing a legal commercial alternative to the anarchy of Ireland’s airwaves.

However, by the end of the 80s, the party began to end for RTÉ. Fianna Fail returned to power in 1987 with the notorious Charles Haughey again at the helm. Fianna Fail always mistrusted the “pinko liberals” of Montrose and set about clipping RTÉ’s wings.

The even more notorious Ray Burke was appointed Minister for Communications in the 1987 Fianna Fail government, and wasted no time in setting up legislation for the provision of legal commercial broadcasting. This was no simple “legalise the pirates” act, this legislation would provide for commercial local broadcasting, for a national commercial radio station and even a national commercial TV station.

By 1989 the pirates were mostly off the air and the legal commercial local stations came on the air. A year later in 1990 the national commercial radio station, Century Radio came on the air and by 1991, a TV licence was awarded to Paul McGuinness, the U2 manager and James Morris of Windmill Lane studios. The consortium was known as ‘TV3’ and they embarked on a mission to find funding to start the station.

By the early 1990s, legal commercial broadcasting was at last a reality but Century Radio was struggling. In an attempt to rescue Century, Ray Burke decided to cap RTÉ’s advertising revenue. He also decided to convert 2FM, RTÉ’s national rock and pop radio station, into an educational station. Mercifully that particular hare-brained scheme never came to fruition. Despite Ray Burke’s meddling in the market, Century Radio collapsed and went off the air. Today FM, a replacement for Century finally appeared in 1998.

Despite all this, the revenue cap was to stay and this was to hurt RTÉ badly.

While the TV3 consortium struggled to find funding, up in Belfast there was a major shake up at Ulster Television. John McGuickian, a board member, mounted a boardroom coup and deposed Brum Henderson from the Ulster Television board. The new Ulster Television management wasted no time in selling advertising to the South, and in doing so, discovered that their audience was actually greater down south than within their own franchise area! The revitalised and renamed UTV managed to reap greatly what Ray Burke had sown by capping RTÉ revenue.

The advertising cap was finally dropped and this gave RTÉ a much-needed shot in the arm. However when Sile de Valera became Minister for Art and Culture in the new Fianna Fail led government in 1997, she ordered a freeze in the Television Licence fee. This freeze was not lifted until July 2001 when the licence rose to Euro110 (£70 Sterling), which is substantially less than the UK licence fee. Because of inflation, RTÉ’s licence revenue effectively shrinks each year while its share of the advertising cake decreases as SkyDigital, TV3, UTV and others march on across the Irish television market.

RTÉ currently have a Euro71 million deficit. Right now, the choices facing RTÉ are stark.

Should they cut back their services? Already the separate news service for the classical radio station Lyric FM has been axed. Radio One World, the nightly service for new immigrants to Ireland has been axed. Tara Television, the service for the UK partially owned by RTÉ has been liquidated, and it may be a matter of time before more services are cut back or stopped.

A report suggests that RTÉ should become a “publisher-broadcaster” like Channel 4 in the UK. But TV3 are already following that model and broadcast lots but publish little. The RTÉ studios themselves are set in a campus in Donnybrook, at the heart of Dublin 4, Dublin’s most exclusive postal district. Should RTÉ sell their undoubtedly expensive real estate and move next to TV3 in Clondalkin?

Network 2 and 2FM are RTÉ’s more commercial operations. Should they be sacrificed and sold off to the highest bidder? Should RTÉ adopt the model used by the ABC in Australia and give up pretensions to being a wide-ranging broadcaster and instead become the sort of castrated state broadcaster that the Rupert Murdochs of this world love?

Of all these options, none are palatable, but in this writer’s opinion, selling some of that real estate would help greatly. But the Irish government cannot wash their hands completely of their responsibility to the Irish people. Without a strong RTÉ, Ireland would be culturally reduced to another regional outpost of the UK, or worse still another state of the U.S. …

Sile de Valera says that RTÉ may get a further increase in the licence fee – RTÉ have sought an extra Euro64 on top of the existing licence fee – but this, she says, is subject to “Licence holders being reassured that the licence fee revenue is well spent and that the RTÉ Authority meets its statutory obligations in the most cost-effective manner”. With mutterings being made by backbench TDs within Fianna Fail over RTÉ bias and especially how RTÉ handled the coverage of the Nice Treaty Referendum campaign – lost by the government, this may well be far off…

RTÉ should be awarded a substantial licence fee increase – but on condition that they should also unshackle themselves from the trade unions and bad management that RTÉ have found themselves with. Maybe RTÉ would even be able to provide a breakfast time news programme! The licence increase would be also conditional that RTÉ spend the money on more home produced programmes and also to foster new talent.

But is this wishful thinking? During that debate between Ahern and Noonan, not once did either man mention broadcasting or broadcasting policy. As Ireland faces the next five years with another Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat government, we can only wonder what shape broadcasting in Ireland will be in by the time the next general election is called.

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