Head to Head: Should the state provide a national television service?

 
 

With sections of the media calling for an end to RTÉ, Rachel Maher and Emer Sugrue debate the need for a state-funded television network

Yes

by Emer Sugrue

State funded broadcasting has been under attack across the globe in recent years. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently caused outrage with his promise to cut the American channel PBS, the provider of the much-loved educational children’s programme Sesame Street. The BBC has also come under frequent attack from conservative politicians who question the ‘fairness’ of having such a huge body exempt from free market competition. Yet state funded broadcasters like RTÉ and the BBC provide a service that commercial stations do not and cannot. Government funding frees programme makers from the pressures of ratings and advertisings and with this allows a unique opportunity to create interesting, unusual, educational and innovative programming.

The key advantage of publicly funded broadcasting is also an elitist one: the most popular and highest rating, and therefore highest earning, shows on television today have absolutely no intellectual value. The percentage of airtime made up by reality TV is growing every year. These shows are both extremely popular, and very cheap to make. They don’t require scriptwriters or even paid actors. The huge ratings for these programmes also attracts advertisers, who not only pay highly for ads during these slots, but pay for the more subtle product placement within the shows, further funding the concept and allowing reality TV to flourish. While this is all well and good, there is a wealth of other programmes which are extremely valuable but will never have the mass popularity that commercial funding depends on.

Without government funding the BBC would never be able to produce the amount of documentaries and in-depth investigative programmes that it does. Documentaries are often expensive to make, and watched by few people, but it is important for everyone that they be made. They give people the option of being informed about the world and learn something new, even if fewer people than they’d like take them up on the offer. On a commercial channel the constant focus on ratings means educational programs just don’t happen, and documentaries are reduced to Ireland’s Booziest Slags and hour-long slurs on the Travelling community. They’re popular, they get the ratings, but they are in no way an appropriate use of the televisual medium.

Aside from documentaries, state funded broadcasters have the resources to create another sort of programming with limited appeal: cultural minorities. TG4 and BBC Cymru Wales, channels which broadcast in Irish and Welsh respectively, could never flourish without government money. While Irish is an important part of our cultural heritage, few people speak it fluently and even fewer have it as their primary language. With just 7% of its income generated from advertising, it would be impossible for TG4 to survive without funding. While the Welsh language is in a much stronger position than Irish and the use of Wales for filming has boosted BBC Cymru Wales’ reputation considerably, they still only receive a tiny share of the viewing figures meaning they would collapse is forced to compete commercially.

On a more subtle level, the freedom from ratings allows state funded channels to take more risks with their commissions. Unlike channels such as Fox in America which commissions and then almost immediately cancels new series if they aren’t an instant hit; the BBC is known for commissioning unusual shows that are not guaranteed an audience and giving them a chance. Many of the most popular comedy shows started in late night BBC 3 slots, and allowed to develop a cult following over the course of their run. RTÉ has also begun to take chances in its commissions, running competitions such as Storyland, in which people can make short online episodes with a view to creating a full series. For a state funded broadcaster, creating content that people might get something out of is more important than the success of any one project. This risk-taking is all the more valuable when you compare it to what commercial stations such as TV3 resort to. The reality is that it’s safer and cheaper to re-run Friends ad infinitum than to create new programming.

Being state funded also grants entities such as RTÉ and BBC much more freedom to criticise corporations and public figures. This may seem counter-intuitive: after all, if the broadcaster depends on the government for funding they must be beholden to them, they must have to take a soft line on those who pay for them. In fact, being publicly funded grants them more independence, as the government guarantees the independence of RTÉ and the BBC. They also have full freedom to investigate and criticise companies who may have unethical business practises without fear of losing advertising revenue. This is a serious concern for independent broadcasters as most companies, and certainly most companies with money for television advertising are actually subsidiaries of larger parent companies making any investigation a very risky prospect.

While there are many criticisms levelled at RTÉ, the BBC and other state funded broadcasters and their operations, what should not be in doubt is their value as a service. Government funds allow them the freedom to create programmes for their own sake, because they are good and worthwhile rather than because a focus group showed people would buy 20% more pizza during it. We need our state funded broadcasters because the free market can never provide the same level of creativity and innovation, and without that we might as well not have broadcasts at all.

No. 

by Rachel Maher

Should the state provide a national television service? Perhaps the question should be rephrased. Should we allow any other independent television stations the chance to become viable competitors in Irish media or even, should ordinary citizens have a choice in what Irish based broadcasters we watch on the box? These are all reasonable questions in a western democracy, yet with RTÉ stifling independent stations from becoming true contenders in media, how can we possibly say that an open market exists in Ireland’s media?

Take a look at the television licence for example. This idea was originally conceived in 1962 when there was only one station operating in the country. This time has long since passed, especially with the imminent digital switchover when Ireland will have more choice than ever in terms of television channels. As we are reminded incessantly by advertisements, these licences are on sale in your local An Post office for a staggering €160. These fees account for 50% of RTÉ’s annual revenue. One might wonder how much of this revenue is spent on the incessant reminders to television owners to pay this fee. But why is it RTÉ is the only broadcaster to benefit from the licence fee?

In July of this year, Independent Broadcasters of Ireland (IBI) issued a policy demanding a small slice of the revenue from the licence fee, stating that to varying degrees, they too perform a public service function, providing news, current affairs, sport and a range of speech and Irish language programming, all being key elements in public service broadcasting in Ireland. IBI’s July policy release also proposed that the Broadcasting Act be amended to remove RTÉ’s commercial mandate and for it to be replaced with a limit on the commercial reach of the State broadcaster. This policy has been met with little action from RTÉ or legislation makers. Although independent broadcasters get some programme funding indirectly through the ‘Sound and Vision’ scheme, many of the programmes that are funded are actually for broadcast on RTÉ stations. Clearly RTÉ still retains an unfair financial advantage over their independent counterparts.

Recently there have been claims from some independent broadcasters of what has been named a “commercial creep” being noted in RTÉ’s online services. With more and more people turning to online streaming of their favourite television shows, there is an increased opportunity for broadcasters to profit from internet commercials. However, a distinct lack of clarity has been noted in RTÉ’s accounts from online advertising, particularly in reference to the degree of cross-subsidisation and on the real costs of providing these services. This begs the question: are RTÉ using the licence fees to compete in areas other than their original mandate in an effort to further dominate other major media competitors?

While it may be true to label RTÉ as a national institution, it is difficult to accept the annual €160 fee being used to preserve and give unfair protection to the station. Some people argue that to disband the Irish national broadcaster would be comparable to disbanding the BBC. But the BBC is an entirely different set-up, not only is the quality of television produced for the BBC immensely superior to that of RTÉ, the British Broadcasting Corporation can at least attempt to justify their licence fee; they have no advertising or associated revenues in their business model. To compare the output of media funded by a licence fee paid by a country with 60 million people to one funded by a population of just 4.5 million is ridiculous, yet we are expected to be satisfied with the response that because something works for the UK we should be happy with the same system.

In early October it was announced that Ben Frow, TV3’s head of programming for the past five years, is set to vacate his position this December. Interviews have revealed that it is not only the economic recession that has forced the channel to squeeze their margins. Talking to TheJournal.ie in August, he referred to continued public funding support for RTÉ and their commercial advertising revenue: “Our ambition is limitless but we can only do so much unless some people step up to the plate and help us out a bit”. He has commented that there seems to be “an inherent snobbery towards TV3”, and by extension other independent broadcasters, leaving these companies with “very little room for taking a risk”.

To quote Frow once more: “Everyone seems utterly terrified of rattling RTÉ’s cages”. Sadly, this does indeed seem to be the case. RTÉ are seemingly trying to create a virtual monopoly within Irish media. With the digital switchover fast approaching, commentators find it difficult to predict how RTÉ will fare amidst the multitudes of ‘Sky Plus Atlantic’ packages and UPC’s multiple offers, let alone our independent channels. This will put RTÉ to a quality test which few could believe will turn out well for the state funded broadcaster.

In the long run, this will be a positive move. We need to create a level playing field in all industries and not to support unfair competition, especially in an industry that enters people’s homes every night, so legislators should either share the licence fee with all broadcasters or eliminate the fee entirely.

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