Tuesday, October 23, 2012

RTE and The Future of TV

Last night's love-in with RTE was a classic wolf in sheep's clothing.  RTE decided to make a programme about television and its future, as part of the fiftieth anniversary programme, that was in effect an egregious, dishonest use of the license fee to defend the license fee itself.  There was no real analysis of other markets and how they operate, because almost all of them operate differently to Ireland; some operate on a license fee without ads (Germany, France), while others operate on ads with no license fee (USA - though PBS is a specifically and exclusively federally funded organisation).  RTE takes both, and screws up at both.  For ad based content, you need to compete against other commercial channels - RTE's viewing figures have been steadily falling over the years.  For license fee driven content, you need to advance the cultural and political objectives of the state: within the last twelve months, the monstrous treatment of Fr Kevin Reynolds, TweetGate and Sean Gallagher, were swiftly followed by the shutting of the London office of RTE.

The Fr Reynolds case was particularly galling.  Prime Time Investigates was part of the Irish schedule, and therefore clearly in the "license fee" category, domestic programming.  The processes around it were so skewed in favour of commercial appeal that the culture of the organisation was such that the more sensational the story, the better (just think of the title - Mission to Prey).  That would mean higher viewing figures, and higher ad revenue.  If ad revenue, and by extension commercial interests, are driving domestic programming, then there's no point in having a license fee.  The argument falls.

RTE makes the argument that they need ad revenue because of the size of the country to supplement the license fee.  I don't buy the argument; I think they are inefficiently run, devoid of strategy, and woefully inadequate in terms of leadership.  And even if I did, why do all of the domestic programmes need to have ads around them?  Do commercial considerations come into it when thinking about when Nationwide is being scheduled?  What about reeling in the years, a crass and overtly commercial clip show?  Is there no separation of function, no isolation of objectives, no awareness of the separability of commercial and political demands?

The result is that RTE has no idea what it is for.  It doesn't compete with TV3, yet it monsters their ad market.  It doesn't compete with commercial radio, yet the TV dominance is used to give free advertising to radio shows (Pat Kenny always plugs his radio show on Frontline - what's the justification?).  It doesn't compete with newspaper websites, yet the vast resources of its news division are available for free to RTE.com, to say nothing for RTE Player, another massive earner that hammers domestic websites competing for online ad euros.

Miriam should have been asking about the Future of RTE, not the Future of TV.  And if RTE could have examined itself with the same rigour and professionalism as the BBC did in last night's Panorama that followed her programme, perhaps some integrity could begin to be restored after what has been an horrendous year or two for the national broadcaster.

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