Things hotting up in battle for share of new broadcast charge

The debate about the future of the new broadcasting charge to replace the TV licence fee is just getting interesting.

Pic: Used under Flickr/Creative Commons licence

Pic: Used under Flickr/Creative Commons licence

All sides – commercial broadcasters including TV3 and the local radio sector, and RTE – have come out fighting in the last couple of weeks. It’s all happening against the backdrop of the review of the sector, and a report being prepared for Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). The report (officially a value for money report on RTE and TG4) is due to be sent to the minister within a few weeks. It is likely the Minister will move to introduce a new broadcasting charge to replace the existing licence fee some time in the next number of months (if legislation is required it may be 2014), but as always the devil will be in the detail. All sides are putting their case forward as to why (they believe) the minister should either move to restrict RTE; increase funding for commercial broadcasters; or offer local radio stations increased support by funding some of its news and current affairs costs. In case you haven’t already guessed it, this all boils down to money, though there are of course far wider public policy implications in terms of the plurality of the media, and in terms of the quality of service to audiences.

In recently weeks the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland have gone on record looking for a larger slice of the cake, claiming (and with some justification) that their news and current affairs services should be considered as public service broadcasting. The problem for the commercial sector is that news and current affairs is a required component (they must broadcast at least 20 per cent news and current affair content) but this is proving prohibitively expensive to produce, especially in the depressed commercial broadcasting sector. Recent figures quoted by the BAI chief executive Michael O’Keeffe suggested commercial radio has lost as much as 40 per cent of its advertising revenue between 2007 and 2012. And there’s no sign that things are going to get any better any time soon. Given the popularity of local radio across the country outside the major cities, and the obvious public service they fill in terms of local news and current affairs reporting (and I’m stating the obvious here, the real politik that local TDs are being lobbied non-stop by local radio stations currently about this issue) I suspect something will be offered to the local radio sector by way of increased funding. Rabbitte suggested as much (well I think he did anyway, he might disagree) when speaking at the IBI conference on Wednesday, saying that local radio produced “public service output of merit that has to be recognised and encouraged and preserved” – and quoted in a piece by Laura Slattery in The Irish Times.

At a national level, RTE and TV3 have also locked horns on the op ed pages of The Irish Times in recent days.

RTE’s director general Noel Curran, in an Irish Times op ed, defended RTE, and dismissed the idea of handing over large wads of cash to the commercial broadcasting sector. He claimed the “David versus Goliath” argument often used by the commercial broadcasting sector when comparing themselves with RTE, just didn’t wash, as two of the biggest players in the commercial radio sector were UTV and Communicorp. On Thursday’s the TV3 head David McRedmond, also in the Times, said that RTE distorted the advertising market and limited choice (well he would say that, wouldn’t he). It is doing so, he suggested, because of a dual-funding model (the TV licence fee and advertising), which allows RTE to sell ads below the cost of programme making. To solve this problem, he wants RTE limited to largely just public service programming; a major reduction in its ability to fund itself through advertising – and funding itself largely from licence fee income. The truth is perhaps a little different. TV3 is a commercially owned station, whose owners want to make a profit – whereas RTE is a public service broadcaster. A hamstrung RTE (in terms of reduced ad revenue and limiting it to largely public service programming) would of course benefit TV3 – it would allow TV3 to increase its advertising, and outbid RTE on high popular programming, thereby weakening RTE even further by losing audience share, to the benefit of a for-profit commercial television station.  The debate will continue, and perhaps some tweaking is necessary, but I doubt any government will want to do anything that would damage the future viability of RTE.

So, where is this all going to end? Who knows. Tonight on RTE’s ‘Media Show’ the BAI chairman Bob Collins (himself a former RTE DG) also rowed into the debate, agreeing with presenter Brenda Power that there was some anxiety among various broadcasters about what the report’s findings might be. He also implicitly suggested that changes of one kind or another may be on the way.

“If there’s an anxiety…. I think it derives from the world in which we live. The review of public service broadcasters cannot take place in isolation from what is happening in the entire world of broadcasting, and that is a fundamental principle as far as I’m concerned. It’s inevitable that people will want to say what their strategic priorities are, and their posts of view are, and set out perhaps in unexpected ways how they see the future,” he said.

He explained the BAI’s five-year review (as required under the Broadcasting Act) would look at the adequacy of public funding for the two State-owned broadcasters RTE and TG4, value for money and the extent to which the extent of schedules which are offered meet the obligations of a public broadcaster in today’s climate. He also said that the report would be completed within about three weeks.

An extract from what he said is here:

“There is a need to begin to re-articulate the purpose of broadcasting, to re-think the purpose of broadcasting in a dramatically changing environment. We [the BAI] undoubtedly have a role…. There is more that binds and unites those engaged in broadcasting than divides them. The biggest challenge to those engaged in broadcasting is not their domestic competitors, the biggest challenge to broadcasting on the television side is the growing tsunami of channels that are available here and that take away advertising here without making any contribution to the domestic broadcasting community and on the other hand the changes in the online world with all the implications that that has, not just in revenue streams but also of audiences’ attentions. Those two issues, when taken together, represent the single most significant challenge, and it’s not just challenges for the individual broadcaster, it’s a challenge for the kind of discourse that will take place in this community, in this stage, and that has huge implications for public policy…. 

“I think there is an urgent need to look at the overall media environment, to look at the extent to which we can sustain what we have, I think there is probably a need for some fairly radical rethinking of structure or patterns, and I think the worst starting point for a conversation about re-imagining media in Ireland is that everything remains precisely as it is at the moment…. There isn’t going to be an easy solution, there is no way you can persuade young people to ignore the technologies that are of their time, but the challenge that brings with it, is to find ways in which the generation of young and not so young people who are completely attuned with what the new technologies have to offer are served, and are addressed in language in which they want to speak and which they want to be heard.”  

 – You can also listen to the podcast here with all credit due to the show’s producer Helen Shaw, producer Brenda Power, and RTE.

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