Ireland’s main public service broadcaster RTÉ is facing serious challenges to its funding, and the sustainability of funding for public service media in the country is in question. In this post Phil Ramsey, School of Communication and Media at Ulster University, illustrates how the Irish Government might have missed opportunities to rectify the issues by avoiding introducing a replacement for the television licence fee, or by failing to extend it to viewing public service content on all devices, not just televisions.

Public service media in the Republic of Ireland (Ireland) is in a state of flux. While the public service broadcaster RTÉ resembles the BBC in many ways, there are a number of factors which mean that public service media is in a more precarious position than in the UK. I recently outlined how reform for the funding of public service media in Ireland is necessary given the financial challenges facing the sector.

Television and radio audiences in Ireland are served by a wide-range of providers in a relatively small mixed-media market, as compared to the much larger media systems of central Europe and the UK. There are two public service broadcasters, but the Irish-language TG4 (Teilifís na Gaeilge) is very small with a total annual income of only €37m. The much larger RTÉ broadcasts four television channels and nine radio stations, and has an annual income of €337m.

RTÉ’s funding problems

Despite the fact that Irish-households pay a television licence fee of €160.00 (almost exactly the same amount as in the UK), RTÉ broadcasts carry advertising. Its overall commercial revenue stream contributes almost 47% of the broadcaster’s income, and so is crucial to topping up the income it receives from the licence fee. However, both these income streams have come under pressure in recent years, and it is for this reason that there have been on-going discussions over the reform of public service media funding.

Ireland has one of the highest licence fee evasion rates in Europe at 14%. Alongside the growth of ‘no-TV homes’ RTÉ suggests that this has led to a loss of €50m a year. Overall, the broadcaster suggests that there has been a decline in licence fee income of 11% as compared to the 2008 income, exacerbated by the number of other schemes that the licence fee goes to support (RTÉ receives only 85% of it). Damningly, the former Director-General of RTÉ, Noel Curran, called it “one of the most inefficient and ineffective TV licence fee systems anywhere in Europe”. In July 2017 the government announced that it would appoint a “new agent” to collect the licence fee in order to try and decrease the evasion rate.

Market downturn

RTÉ has faced significant financial pressures on its commercial earnings. The consultants Oliver and Ohlbaum outlined that between 2007–2013 RTÉ’s share of the television advertising market in the country fell from 62% to 52%. In the most recent set of figures available RTÉ’s television and sponsorship revenue had increased slightly, but at the same time there had been an 11% annual decline in digital advertising and sponsorship. One major problem for RTÉ has been the widespread availability of UK television channels in Ireland, which have challenged the national channels.

This led Noel Curran to argue that RTÉ had to compete “for audiences every night with the most highly-resourced and the best public service and commercial broadcasters in the world – the BBC and Channel 4, ITV and Sky…” In 2016 he bemoaned the fact that UK television organisations were “content dumping”, which he argued involves directly selling advertising for their broadcasts in Ireland, “taking close to €50 million out of the Irish television market each year”.

Replace the licence fee?

As has been the case across a number of European countries, a Public Service Broadcasting Charge (PSBC) to replace the television licence fee has been considered in Ireland. Various versions of this have been introduced elsewhere: in Germany each household pays a “broadcasting contribution”, while in Finland a tax is paid as a percentage of “earned income and capital income” with a ceiling set.

In 2011 the Irish Coalition Government committed to “examine the role, and collection of, the TV licence fee in light of existing and projected convergence of broadcasting technologies, [and to] transform the TV licence into a household-based Public Broadcasting Charge applied to all households and applicable businesses, regardless of the device they use to access content…”. The government’s intention was that the PSBC would be operational by the beginning of 2015 following a consultation period. However, the minority Coalition Government that was elected in February 2016 dropped the policy idea, believing that it would not be able to implement the legislation in the Irish Parliament.

More recently the Irish Government has revisited the issues facing public service media, with the minister in charge of broadcasting, Denis Naughten, tasking a Parliamentary committee to consider the matter. However, reports that Naughten was considering extending the licence fee to apply to watching television on all computers and tablet devices, as is now the case in the UK for live television and the BBC iPlayer, was ruled out by his department in May 2017.

Need for reform

Given the scale of licence fee evasion, probable growth in ‘no-TV homes’ as viewing habits continue to shift away from  more-traditional media consumption habits, and the potential for an even tougher commercial operating environment, RTÉ faces a difficult future. It is therefore no surprise that Noel Curran spoke so frankly on the matter, as has his successor as Director-General, Dee Forbes, who has argued that “RTÉ’s overall funding position is becoming unsustainable”. In July 2017 she called for an inflationary increase in the licence fee which would have raised it to €175, but the government also ruled this out. As long as RTÉ’s funding position remains precarious, the Irish Government will need to move quickly to ensure sustainability for public service media funding in the country.

This post gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.