Television staff

RTÉ: From player issues to staff pay cuts – five things we learned from committee hearing

The national broadcaster’s chief executive, Dee Forbes, met with the Public Accounts Committee today and discussed among other things the license fee collection system. Here’s what we learned:

1) He knows there are major problems with the RTÉ Player

RTÉ is committed to fixing “problems” with its Player streaming service, the station manager said.

The player has stabilized a lot over the past year, Dee Forbes told the public accounts committee.

The station was allocating funds for the player’s continued upgrade, she said. What was needed to make it fit for purpose was “a lot more than we’re spending now”.

“I’ll be honest with you, we don’t have the resources or the money of some of the streamers or Channel Four where they have invested significantly in this area.”

Social Democrat co-leader Catherine said she tried it herself and regularly gave up in frustration.

Fianna Fáil’s James O’Connor said the player was “a disgrace”. It’s just not where it needs to be, he added.

2) RTÉ is trying to get money from Google

RTÉ is in talks with Google to receive payment for its content.

Ms Forbes said the station was involved in finding a fair exchange value for its material.

He was not yet in talks with Facebook, the biggest social media platform, she said.

“There’s a difference between what Google plans and what Facebook plans,” she said.

“We have an ongoing dialogue with Facebook, but it’s a different kind of platform.”

Google was “proposing” questions, she added, without giving away any of the sensitive details involved.

TD Jennifer Carroll MacNeill said RTÉ did not appear to have a Plan B or Plan C to cut costs, such as moving its base to the periphery or shutting down RTÉ 2 television to focus on RTÉ 1.

the Irish Independent, Irish Times and Virgin Media did not get state support, she noted when asking Ms Forbes about ad revenue.

RTÉ rates are more expensive than Virgin Media, but slightly cheaper than in the UK, Ms Forbes said. She didn’t have details on the rate card, she said, because it wasn’t within her day-to-day remit, but there were different circumstances and markets.

3) Montrose wants more public money, but not a TV license fee increase

Ms Forbes stressed that RTÉ was not seeking to increase the €160 annual license fee, which has not been increased since 2013.

She said the station had instead advocated for reform of the collection system.

Currently, three in ten households don’t pay – half of them legitimately because they don’t have a TV, although they may have other devices.

Ms Forbes said an increase in licensing fees, without maximizing collection and compliance, would be ‘unfair’ to those paying, she said.

But the fact was there was an indicated shortfall in royalty income of €65m – the same figure as his accrued loans.

“If you’re in a household without a TV and you watch the RTÉ player or listen to RTÉ radio, the current broadcasting law says that’s fine,” the DG commented.

She said the escape rate with the license fee of €160 per year rose to 15.2% in 2020, while at the same time 15.1% of households no longer had a television, although that they can stream to devices.

The latter category has increased fivefold since 2011, when it stood at 3% nationally.

She told FF TD Cormac Devlin that Finland, with a similar population to Ireland, was “a place to watch”. Its public service television is funded by a “tax-based system”, as is the case in other Nordic countries, she said.

Green TD Neasa Hourigan said defunding the station would only serve populists, conspiracy theorists and the far right – yet Socialist Party TD Mick Barry separately opposed a new domestic broadcast fee, saying that its introduction would lead to “a great campaign of opposition”. and boycott”.

Instead, he supports a new tax on tech media giants as an alternative way to fund public broadcasting in the state.

“A new tax on tech media giants that have made incredible profits during the pandemic is the best way to increase funding for public broadcasting,” Barry said.

“A new domestic broadcast fee is totally the wrong way to go and would face a major campaign of opposition and boycott.”

4) RTÉ is still slow to reveal the salaries of its best employees

A target of 15% pay cuts for top stars has been met in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, politicians have been told.

Fiona O’Shea, the RTÉ Group’s financial controller, said the 2020 top earner pay statistics would be released “in due course” in 2023.

Nearly 10% of RTÉ employees earn €100,000 per year or more.

Of the station’s 1,866 direct employees, the vast majority – 1,749 – earn less than that annual figure.

This leaves 117 individuals earning a minimum of €100,000 per year. No higher maximum has been indicated.

“We’re still publishing (the best salaries) two years behind,” Ms O’Shea said.

“Our intention would be to release the 2020 Top 10 results in due course this year.”

The total value of these salaries represents “less than 1% of our total operating costs”.

RTÉ pledged in 2019 to offer a 15% reduction on the cost of these top 10 earners, in light of the station’s financial crisis.

“I want to confirm to you today that this has been achieved,” Ms O’Shea said.

“We are finalizing the audits regarding the 2020 results, and they will be published in due course.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have an appointment for you.”

Ms Forbes said they would be available “in the coming months, certainly”. There were “commercial sensitivities” in doing better than publishing two years late, she said, and that arrangement had been agreed.

5) Operation Transformation had “possible triggers” for some viewers

The chief executive has admitted that RTÉ’s weight loss TV show, Operation Transformation, involved “possible triggers”.

Green TD Neasa Hourigan said he has been criticized by body image and eating disorder groups.

“Where is the test of how you do this, and who decides what is in the public interest?” she asked RTÉ DG Dee Forbes.

Ms Forbes said during her response: “I appreciate that there have been possible triggers for the people who are part of it, but I think in the overall health of the nation and the overall benefits that come from it , we are getting very strong feedback.”

She said public service, by its nature, is to “entertain, educate and inform”.

“It’s important to say that every year the BAI (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland) assesses how well we are fulfilling our mandate.”

There had been a “very positive reaction again” to Operation Transformation, she said.

“The creators of the program, in conjunction with ourselves, are very aware of and through the issues you mentioned.

“We’ve evolved the program, it’s changed, and we certainly hope it responds to a more holistic approach to the overall health issue,” Ms. Forbes told TDs and senators.

Asked about program standards and whether particular groups were contacted for review to see “if you get the right end of the argument”, Ms Forbes said RTÉ had indeed carried out “independent research on this subject”.

She did not name the research body, but said the effort was “to assess any improvements that could be made to the program.”

She told Ms Hourigan: ‘I will get back to you on where this research was done.’