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RTÉ guts kids TV: 'How can you stand before a country and be like, give us your licence fee?'

RTÉ has decided to completely outsource the production of young people’s television.

Santa pays Bosco and co. a visit in 1983.
Santa pays Bosco and co. a visit in 1983.
Image: Twitter/RTÉ Archives

RTÉ’S DECISION TO gut its children’s TV production came as a shock to many.

It was a shock to many of the people who spend their days in Montrose, but also to those across the country whose connection to the national broadcaster is most tightly wrapped in their childhood.

For some though, the shock was painfully familiar.

Paula Lambert, the voice of Bosco and the daughter of Wanderly Wagon’s Eugene Lambert, says the decision is the latest in a long history of occasions where RTÉ has chosen to cut children’s TV as a kind of easy option.

“It brought back incredibly bad memories for me,” she explains.

“I remember Wanderly Wagon was axed and how it was done and how hurt my dad was back in the day. It happened with me with Bosco and it just brought back all these memories of how badly people are treated by RTÉ.”

RTÉ and its spokespeople have stressed that the station is operating in a “challenging financial environment” and that efficiencies must be found.

The broadcaster has promised that its overall spend will not being diminished, just moved entirely to independent producers. But even if this pledge is kept, commissioning and production timeframes have led to fears that it could be 2018 before this actually happens.

21/11/2007. St Vincent de Paul Toy Appeals The late Irish puppeteer Eugene Lambert and 'Judge'. (File, 2007)

While most people accept that times are tight, Lambert’s problem is that the axe has fallen hardest in the children’s TV department, where she says it frequently has before:

The first thing to be cut was children’s programmes. I remember the Bosco programmes we were going to do were slashed. Always in economic disasters, political disasters in the 1980s with all the elections, children’s programmes were axed to cover all the elections. Always when there was an economic, political or any reason, the first thing that got chopped was children’s programmes.

“I feel very, very sorry for the young enthusiastic people who are working in the children’s department today. I know that they give it their all with very little facilities.”

The young enthusiastic people Lambert is referring to don’t disagree. Puppeteer Ray Wingnut and presenter Clara Murray are two of the people most directly affected by this week’s announcement.

Posted by on Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Among other things, Wingnut is the man behind Séamus the puppy dog, frequently seen on RTÉ Junior, while Murray fronts Twigín and the new Pop Goes The Weekend.

They say the news brought devastation to the children’s TV team when they were called to an unexpected meeting on Wednesday afternoon. This after months of hearing the odd rumour from colleagues in the canteen.

“Sheila de Courcy, head of the department, read a statement and said in three weeks time, everything is going to stop,” Wingnut explains, adding that she was visibly upset doing so.

People were really angry and were distraught that Young People’s were never part of the discussion about what could be possible. It was a cold, clean sweep and that’s what hurt people. Because they were making out like we’ve come to tell you personally, look we’ve come down from our offices to tell you.

Murray adds that temporary contracts as short as three months always meant for some anxious times but that “you never thought the whole department would be gone.”

Ended

RTÉ has said that eight staff are remaining within the young people’s department, 11 staff are to be reassigned within RTÉ and 15 independent contractors will see their contracts ended.

The initial plan was that these contracts would finish in December but this been made somewhat unclear following a meeting between management and the RTÉ Trade Union Group (TUG) yesterday.

After that meeting, RTÉ accepted that there had been insufficient consultation before Wednesday’s announcement and that further talks would therefore have to take place.

RTÉ has placed the deadline for these discussions on 31 January 2017.

Unions have echoed that deadline and also pledged to ensure that “the public service ethos of the station is safeguarded”.

rte President Mary Robinson visits Ray, Zig and Zag and Dustin on The Den in 1990. Source: Twitter/RTÉ Archives

This point is one that has been repeated frequently in the past 72 hours. The question of how fundamental children’s TV is to public service broadcasting.

Wingnut says angry questions like this were put to the RTÉ top brass at Wednesday’s meeting:

Questions like, ‘how can you stand in front of a country and be like, give us your licence fee yet we’re not going to cater for 30% of the population that is under 18 and is a population that doesn’t have a voice?’

He points to examples like Swipe TV, an in-house RTÉ production that caters for children aged between 8-12 and has an accompanying smartphone app that’s been downloaded 20,000 times. It is a trusted outlet that parents can give their children when they want them to explore the digital space.

“I think of things like Sesame Street, which is public service broadcasting. You know that it’s safe and you know that it’s a touchstone and I think that RTÉ as a public service broadcaster needs to maintain that idea of it being a centre of excellence.”

The quality of children’s programming and animation from independent producers is not being doubted by anyone. This country genuinely has some of the best people in the world working in that space.

What is perhaps being questioned is whether losing RTÉ’s hand in kids’ TV will also mean losing the loyalty to heritage and the commitment to provincial balance.

RTÉ’s delivery of its all-Ireland remit is frequently shown most clearly in the children from all parts of the country who appear on air. It’s a two-way street as well, with these children as excited as anyone to come to the centre of Irish broadcasting in Dublin 4.

Murray has seen it first hand.

“We have a diverse audience, we have children from all over the country, all parts of Dublin that I’m afraid won’t be represented.”

I had kids in a few weeks ago just to record a little sting and they were absolutely thrilled. You’d want to see the reaction from some of the kids. That’s rooted in their parents as well.

Commercial realities

On a wider level, the developments have also led to concerns that commercial decisions are increasingly outweighing other considerations at the station.

RTÉ’s official statement the other evening made it clear that this was about “operating costs” and “statutory committed spend”.  At no point did it say that the decision could deliver better programming.

“I think there’s been a gradual commercialisation of RTÉ,” says Colum Kenny, a former DCU journalism professor and member of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

He argues that this issue stems from a “blurring of the lines” in terms of RTÉ’s “funding, output, presenters and indeed their mode of payment”.

“I think it’s a station we need a conversation about. I think that it needs to determine where it’s at itself. We’re at a point now where at times the station sounds lost and I think we want to make sure that we have strong public service media going into the future.”

As Paula Lambert puts it:

The children of Ireland who watched television are now the adults that are supporting RTÉ and I think the next generation really need to be treated in the same way.

Read: ‘Financial difficulties’ at RTÉ forced children’s television cutbacks – but Fair City is safe >

Read: RTÉ staff say decision to cut children’s programme making was ‘bolt from the blue’ >

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Rónán Duffy

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