RTE: A proposal for the funding issue

I wrote recently about some of the reasons I thought that public service broadcasting remained relevant after Netflix and other commercial streaming services.

At the end I suggested that we, the public for whom all this broadcasting was being done, should start our own discussion on how to solve the problems which have, in the last week alone, seen RTE issue a plan to slash services, staff and costs.

That plan alone, as the RTE Board’s Chairwoman acknowledged in an interview on the Marian Finucane radio programme, still doesn’t solve the major strategic problems RTE faces.

So, let’s start.

Let’s Not Regress

Pretend that the problems of RTE as an institution has been solved. That is a different discussion for a different day. Let’s just look at one thing at a time- this time, funding models.

This proposal should be read as deciding what proportion of the national wealth should be used for public service broadcasting- in whatever medium by whatever body.

The licence fee is regressive taxation, once it is widespread. It only made sense, morally, when only rich people had TVs.

But if you just leave RTE to be funded by general funds in the annual budget it can be starved for political purposes. There’s an interesting section in Sit Down and Be Counted where they say that the people who had worked in Radio Eireann had seen the advent of advertising money as a boon to independence, because they had been, up to that point, having to please individual Civil Servants with their output.

The household charge basically takes the error of the regressive, flat-tax approach of the licence fee and tries to apply it to more people, making that error worse.

Not a Licence Fee, Not a budget line

So, taking some lessons from the BBC Royal Charter, this proposal is;

  • Pass legislation locking RTE funding to a fixed proportion of Government revenue. Let them save in the good years to prepare for the lean ones.
  • Let them borrow also against future upturns for strategic investment or infrastructure. I’ve given the example of the funding that would have come from 0.5% of Gov revenue.
  • Have this rate locked for a fixed number of years- 10 being the BBC example.

(Here, RTE should be read as standing in for whatever vehicles or institutions are given the job of delivering public service broadcasting)

Last year, this would have delivered €410m in funding, as opposed to RTE’s actual income of €337m.

A conversation starter

Half a percentage point of Government revenue may be the right percentage, or it may not be enough, or it may be the wrong thing to tie this payment to. But it has no additional collection costs and no possibility of evasion and it’s paid for mostly through progressive taxation.

What do you think?

The National Childcare Scheme and the PSC

My quick thoughts on the requirement to have a PSC and a MyGovID account in order to access payments under the New Childcare Scheme. I was speaking about this on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTE1 radio this morning.

  1. 1) The DPC has said this requirement is illegal in her report (published yesterday)
  2. The Government has argued with this finding in public, but it has not appealed it. It is now out of time to do so (21 days). Section 26(1) of the Data Protection Act 1988 is below, setting out that time limit.
  3. The text has been amended, but the 21 day time limit remains. The finding stands unchallenged. The time is up to challenge it. There can be no backdoor reset of the appeal time limit. The Department of Children has acknowledged it is aware that its policy is contrarty to the DPC’s finding.
  4. However, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has confirmed that, as things stand, online applications for the scheme will only be processed for people in possession of a verified MyGovID, the web equivalent of the physical PSC.
  5. “The Dept of Children is legally responsible for any breach it makes of the GDPR, but it appears to be reluctant to adopt its responsibility. “The Department of Children referred questions regarding the DPC’s decision to the Department of Social Protection, which it said is “considering it and will respond in due course”. “Officials in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are liaising with them in this regard,” said the spokesperson.”
  6. The alternative system, without a PSC, is not available until Jan. But if the PSC isn’t needed in that system, it is not needed at all.”However, the manual, postal application process will not come on line until late January next year, meaning that for the first three months of the scheme’s life the PSC will be the only means by which people can access the plan’s subsidies.
  7. The DPC’s report acknowledged this trend to use the PSC not to access public services but to act as a barrier to them.“Rather than the PSC being any kind of enabler for the purpose of accessing public services (other than social welfare services and free travel), it can in fact operate as an impediment to accessing public services.”

RTÉ after Netflix: Recasting Broadcast

What is the point of a Broadcast TV station in a post-Netflix streaming world?

There is a crisis of relevance in the slow-moving and state regulated world of broadcast TV. What is the point of turning up and having programmes being beamed indiscrimiately across a specific geographical location when you can just stream or download anything, anytime, anywhere?

The Long Now

RTÉ is gasping financially, the government having kicked away any change in the structure of the licence fee for at least five years. The advertising market continues to gradually drain away to the online duopoly of Google and Facebook, in Ireland as much as internationally.

Meanwhile, Netflix has proved the streaming model so succesfully that a myriad of competitors are in the works, all basically slotting their own content into the familiar binge-watch choice model.

So, it might seem like a strange idea to suggest that now is the moment to focus again on the things that broadcast TV can do that others can’t. Specifically, broadcast is about Simultaneity- these are things (live events or broadcasts) which are happening at the same time, and in the same way in everyone’s home.

A football match, a political event, X-Factor, The Late Late Toy Show, god help us the Rose of Tralee. And, most crucially for the public sphere- the News.

They’re the backbone of public discussion. The things that happened, that we all saw, or that everyone else saw and we missed and now we have to catch up.

Netflix avoids the zeitgeist

Meantime, on Netflix, something weird hovers around the art direction of the shows it is building up. A Netflix original show doesn’t have to be a huge hit when it comes out (though they’d like it if it was). What it has to show is the ability to stick around- to be watched and rewatched over time, so you’re less likely to drop your subscription because then you wouldn’t have that comfortable favourite.

There’s a reason Netflix paid €100m for the rights to show Friends repeats. It’s basically pre-chewed tv for your brain.

But take a look at Gotham – (aka Young Batman). What decade is it set in? 1940s rotary dial phones on desks, non-specific mobiles in pockets, suit lapels that swell and shrink outside the bounds of fashion.

Netflix wants series set in the future, in the past or inside the memory of other stories.

It is not interested in telling stories about us, now. Because it wants its programming to still be as (non) contemporary in 5 years as it is now.

Broadcast lets the nation talk

That’s 100% fine as a commercial entertainment entity. But it leaves the field wide open to public service broadcasters to do the things they are meant to do- to be a nation talking to itself, about itself.

Except RTÉ approaches this space hobbled- as it has always been- by the founding errors of the Broadcasting Acts. Hemmed in on one side by public subsidy (via the Licence Fee) which no Govt is in a hurry to pay the political price needed to update and on the other by advertising revenues which are structurally doomed to dwindle away.

This week sees the current Director General of RTÉ warning of cuts and structural changes to come as it continues to run at a loss.

There is talk of dropping the public service elements of RTÉ (LyricFM, orchestras, etc) in favour of activities which raise money via advertising. It is possible for a broadcaster to be profitable if it limits its output to whatever it can sell more ads against. But it isn’t possible for them to remain a Public Service Broadcaster. It’s just commercial telly with a weird tax subsidy.

If we’re going to preserve the value RTÉ offers us- it’s audience and it’s owners, both- we are going to have to take control of the discussion. This is never going to be solved at the political level, where there are no votes in imposing price increases to fund more scrutiny of the political class. It isn’t going to come from RTÉ’s executive level, who have no access to any of the levers of power that might change their structurally broken legislative underpinnings.

Heresies to set us free

If we’re going to seize control of the discussion, l’d like to set out the heresies we should start with that nobody else will touch.

  1. A very substantial increase in public funding.
  2. Eliminate advertising.
  3. Presenter salaries are a distraction. We need to be able to discuss RTÉ without having the conversation derailed by a sterile bunfight of almost zero financial significance. Just… forget it.

Number 1 and number 2 are two sides of the same coin. If we’re going to get rid of advertising, we’ll need to replace the fund with money from elsewhere. It’s a public service broadcaster we want. So, like the BBC, we need to fund it from the public.

How that funding is delivered isn’t straightforward- a TV licence looks like a weird model in a world where screens can live in your pocket. But direct funding from central funds leaves the station open to direct influence and threat year to year in every budget. The BBC’s Charter comes up for renewal every 10 years, and it still distorts and influences output as it approaches. An annual leash for a broadcaster would be hobbling.

Removing Advertising from RTÉ would, ironically, also serve the rest of the media market who do rely on ads, giving them all a suddenly bigger slice of that slowly shrinking pie.

That’s the sort of conversation we need. We need to ask how we deliver the service we want without introducing new problems. This is the heart of constructive dialog.

Number 3 is about making room for that structual conversation by just parking the nonsense that has distracted us- the audience- from having it. Presenter salaries are a piece of shiny paper on a stick, drawing attention from the structural and legislative changes RTÉ needs. We can’t solve the real problems of a €300 million company if the only thing we can talk about is the €3m spent on the top ten presenters. The deficit is €13million. Fire them all and replace them with ads for sliderobes and you still haven’t addressed anything.

It doesn’t matter, so… just forget it.

RTÉ has serious flaws and failings. The programmes are too frequently baggy and aimed at people who think middle aged men are young. There’s a lack of originality. It’s instiutionally frozen in the headlights of the internet. There’s [insert your criticism here]. But none of that can be fixed while its starving to death.

If we want RTÉ to change, we need it to survive.

So, first things first.

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