In this issue
RTE anseo agaibh - but in what guise?
|Kevin Rafter looks at where RTE might go from here as a new director general takes over|
RTE is gearing up to mark the 50th anniversary of the introduction of a domestic TV service in Ireland. Commissioning editors have expressed an interest in independently produced programming to be broadcast in the run-in to the next year's anniversary date. Telefis Eireann first broadcast on 31 December 1961 with an official blessing from the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, along with music, song and poetry, and a live broadcast from the Gresham Hotel in central Dublin.
Eamon de Valera spoke of his privilege in addressing the watching audience but the president added words of caution: "Like atomic energy it can be used for incalculable good but it can also do irreparable harm. Never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude."
Caution is a good word to describe RTE as it edges closer to this significant anniversary date. Indeed, in looking back over the last half century of television broadcasting, the state owned broadcaster may well mark down July 22nd 2010 as a key date in its history. That was the day when RTE confirmed that Cathal Goan was not seeking an extension to his seven-year tenure as director general. It was also the day when the government signalled that the privatisation of state assets including RTE was on the agenda.
Communications minister Eamon Ryan had kind words for the departing senior RTE executive."Cathal knows that the number one job in public service broadcasting is programme-making and he has remained committed to that throughout his career," Ryan said. RTE remains the big beast in the Irish broadcasting sector but Goan's successor faces a tough climate with continuing pressure on advertising and increasing competition especially for younger viewers and listeners. Faster broadband is also only going to accelerate audience fragmentation as the web wins more viewers.
On top of this agenda is now the future of the current operational structure at the national broadcaster. UCD economics lecturer Colm McCarthy is heading a team of three experts in examining how commercial semi-state companies can stimulate job creation and support Ireland's economic recovery. Interestingly, no private sector voice will be involved in the process. The review group has been asked to consider the potential for asset disposals in the public sector in view of the indebtedness of the State. A list of possible asset disposals will be presented to the Department of Finance within months.
‘With Cathal Goan leaving RTE, a new director-general can be expected to make changes. RTE has moved beyond being a broadcaster, it is a cross-platform media business' - Kevin Rafter
Minister Ryan has been vocal in his opposition to the sell-off of An Post and key energy assets, including the ESB and Bord Gáis. But worryingly for RTE he has been less forceful in his defence of the state broadcaster. The minister has already signaled a willingness to sell-off RTE's network division which oversees the transmission service.
A previous disposal plan in 2002 was shelved as the offer prices too low. A higher price is unlikely now so whatever sum might be raised - perhaps €30m to €50m - would hardly make a dent in the indebtedness of the State. So it may well be that McCarthy and this two colleagues look elsewhere in RTE to realise funds.
RTE has moved beyond being a broadcaster. With its publishing unit and extensive online services, RTE is now a cross-platform media business. In some areas, it is hard to see where is the public service remit in RTE's activities. McCarthy may well see value in looking at 2FM and rte.ie. Whether now is the right time to dispose of 2FM is open to debate - the market for radio assets has fallen and a fire sale is hardly the best approach.
But the sale of rte.ie might be an interesting option, particularly in light of calls for the definition of public service content to be reconsidered and for an examination of the use of public money in the online space. Earlier this year the OECD acknowledged the criticism that, the online activities of public service broadcasters "are directly competing with commercial news provides on the basis of tax payers' money and are potentially crowding out the latter, in particular when they are also raising revenue."
RTE says its online service operates without licence fee subvention although it is not clear what is the exact financial situation at rte.ie. McCarthy and his colleagues may be interested in knowing more about what looks an interesting state asset. ABCe figures show that rte.ie remains Ireland's top website and it has an increasing international audience - some 1.3m overseas visitors per month in the year to May 2010.
A cursory glance at the site will also show the review group that a great deal of the content on rte.ie seriously struggles to be classified as having any public service value. One way of dealing with the issues raised by OECD - and to get the Irish government some of the money it desperately needs - would be to sell the online service to a private owner. It is against this background of increasing scrutiny that the new director general will need a well-prepared script on what is the public service value in RTE's output and how the licence fee is used to deliver public service content.