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OPINION: RTÉ trying to adapt to new realities

November 17th, 2019 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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WEST Cork is proud of having another of its natives in the plum role of director-general of RTÉ, but few would envy the job she has to do on behalf of all of us taxpayers to bring this behemoth of a broadcasting organisation up to speed with the requirements of the 21st century, which have changed so rapidly in recent years and to the detriment of the national broadcaster. DG Dee Forbes certainly has her work cut out for her if she is to succeed in her modernisation efforts and, while she is shipping a lot of flak after the announcement of 200 job losses and a 15% pay cut for some of station’s higher-earning broadcasters, the problems are not insurmountable if management, staff and their unions pull together in a spirit of co-operation.

A lot of streamlining will need to be done in order to serve the younger viewers – who consume television programming differently to their parents. Gone are the days of the whole family sitting down together to watch programmes; even the older generation are now well versed in storing programmes to watch later when they can skip the ads, making such advertising slots less attractive to advertisers unless they can get them more cheaply.

The news of RTÉ’s financial woes – although hardly a surprise – was leaked during a tough week for the station, which started with the announcement of the death of former Late Late Show host and radio presenter Gay Byrne that brought back fond memories of the glory days and a wave of warm nostalgia for when RTÉ ruled the airwaves. This only served to further point up and highlight the exceedingly difficult juncture it finds itself at right now.

It isn’t as if RTÉ is a laggard in the ratings on both radio and television; it still has the most watched and most listened-to programmes, but it comes at a huge cost, especially when one factors in its public service remit, which is why most of the television licence revenue goes to the national broadcaster. The problem is that the licence fee hasn’t increased in some time and there is a higher level of evasion of payment than in other countries, combined with the slippage in advertising revenue.

The fact that Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton, has kicked the decision about replacing the television licence fee with some form of public service media charge five years down the road is not helpful for RTÉ in budgeting for the future especially as the whole broadcasting landscape will probably have changed even more again by then and it simply cannot afford to fall further behind the curve.

Its cause is not helped by the fact that politicians generally are not rushing into the breach to bail out the station, many having been left squirming after robust questioning from some of its broadcasters anxious to return the compliment. One can only describe such an attitude as petty, vindictive and a dereliction of their responsibilities.

Coming up with a vision for RTÉ is fraught with difficulty – a veritable shot in the dark really. So it is impossible to say with any certainty whether or not the latest package of measures will have the desired effect.

Staff have been upset at the prospect of losing their jobs and there has been disappointment in the regions – Limerick especially – at the closure of studios. It is noteworthy that when the BBC set about re-organising itself for the future, it put more faith in its regional offshoots and some people feel that maybe RTÉ is too Montrose-centric for its own good.

People have questioned the necessity for having so many channels on radio and television, suggesting that one of each could fulfil RTÉ’s public service remit, but that is a bit simplistic. The proposal to cut its digital services due to funding shortfalls is ironic given the younger market that RTÉ needs to be pursuing into the future.

It has a massive archive of quality material produced and gathered over the years and should have it and future productions accessible on its digital platform using the Netflix subscription model to generate extra revenue. This seems to be the future of television consumption, as understood at the moment, however the station needs to get its act together with its RTÉ Player, which has been suffering huge teething problems since its recent revamp, because it will be an integral part of the revival of its fortunes.

A difficult challenge, but one that is in everybody’s interest to face up to in this era of so-called fake news when the trustworthiness and integrity that RTÉ provides was never more necessary.

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