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'Broken' TV licence system costing €50 million per year, RTÉ tells Oireachtas committee

The committee also heard of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the media industry.

Adrian Lynch, the director of audience channels speaking at the Oireachtas Committee today.
Adrian Lynch, the director of audience channels speaking at the Oireachtas Committee today.
Image: PA/Oireachtas TV

THE “BROKEN” TV licence system is costing about €50 million in lost revenue each year, RTÉ’s television controller has said.

Adrian Lynch said there were more than a quarter of a million people who evade the licence fee and a further 140,000 households without a TV.

The director of audiences, channels and marketing at RTÉ added that the broadcaster was not looking to increase the licence fee, but instead wants the licensing system overhauled.

“We’re not looking to higher the licence fee, we’re just looking to have it reformed and fixed,” he said.

You’ve got about 140,000 no-TV homes and then you’ve got about 250,000 who don’t pay the licence fee.

“If you put all of that together you get 50 million euros and we’d be having a very different conversation in this room.”

He made the comments at the joint Oireachtas Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Sport, Culture and the Gaeltacht.

It met today to discuss public service broadcasting and the impact of Covid-19 on the media sector.

Lynch said Covid-19 had caused an immediate “sharp drop” in licence fee revenue and a decline in advertising revenue. That drop was more than 30%.

He said commercial income in the fourth quarter of the year had “stabilised to some degree”, as had income from the TV licence, but the outlook for 2021 remained “uncertain”.

“The toll of Brexit on the national economy, and commercial performance, is unknowable, he said.

The combination of a broken TV licence system and a precarious commercial environment exposes undeniable vulnerabilities for the national public service media.

Despite these difficulties he told the committee that RTÉ would deliver its planned €60 million cost-cutting plans over three years as proposed by the director general Dee Forbes last year.

He said that cost-cutting would be delivered through cost management, changes in the schedule and big sporting events being deferred to next year.

He said the broadcaster had revised the number of redundancies it was seeking from staff downwards from 200 to about 140 due to Covid-19.

He said 73 people were due to leave the National Symphony Orchestra and a voluntary exit package will be opened in January which will seek 60 to 70 people to leave at that point.

“Part of it is because we have been delivering such significant output and we’ve changed the way we are working significantly. There’s so much remote working and we really see that we need to keep these essential services on air.”

Lynch told the committee that RTÉ showed “clear public purpose” during this crisis and had also been a source of “companionship, diversion and connection for millions of people”.

Concerned union

The Irish secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Seamus Dooley, told the committee the union was “gravely concerned” for the future of public service broadcasting in Ireland.

Dooley said the Media Minister Catherine Martin had provided “precious little clarity” on how the department proposed to assist in addressing the financial situation in RTÉ.

“There was no real recognition of the tsunami, which is engulfing the newspaper sector, in particular the regional press,” he said.

The focus on independent production within broadcasting ignores the existence of freelance workers – writers, photographers and videographers.

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He said the union welcomed that the Future of Media Commission had commenced its work but he warned: “If we don’t see immediate action there will be no future for many media workers.”

At the onset of the pandemic, Dooley said the NUJ had called for a forum on the crisis facing the media industry.

“While initiatives were taken in respect of tourism, hospitality and the arts, no immediate, substantial measures were taken to assist the media apart from the welcome initiative in respect of independent commercial radio,” he said.

“While employment in the print, broadcasting and digital sector is not comparable to tourism, the implications for democracy, of a diminished media sector should be of concern to this committee.”

John Purcell, chairman of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, called for an emergency taskforce to be established during the pandemic to assist media workers.

Purcell welcomed the establishment of the Commission of the Future of Media but warned that action to support the sector cannot wait until the conclusion of the process.

“We need action now to enable the survival of our services through the protracted Covid crisis which has intensified the already severe threats being faced by our broadcasters,” he told the committee.

The government and the minister cannot wait for the conclusion of the Commission on Media process to take action to ensure the survival of Irish broadcasting. If you do it will be too late for many.”

He added: “The situation is very urgent, time is of the essence and action speaks louder than words.”

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