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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