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rte cuts

If everyone with a TV paid their licence fee in 2018, RTÉ would have an extra €32 million

As RTÉ restructures its organisation with staff cuts and asset sales, there’s a new focus on Ireland’s high TV licence evasion rates.

AT THE END of RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes’ plan for structural and financial reforms, emailed out late on Wednesday night, she warned that although business changes were needed, the government needed to change the “broken” TV licence fee for RTÉ to survive.  

The changes to RTÉ include 200 job cuts for next year, the fees of RTÉ’s top contracted presenters to be cut by 15%, while RTÉ’s digital stations, including RTÉ Gold, are to close. 

“I am clear about what role RTÉ should play in Irish life, but I am also clear that we cannot do it unless government fixes the TV licence system. We shouldn’t be under any illusions; we are in a fight – a fight to sustain a viable public media in Ireland,” the email outlined.

Earlier in the email, RTÉ highlighted Ireland’s “highest [TV licence fee] evasion rates in Europe” at 14%, representing those that have a television, but haven’t paid for a TV licence. 

Separately, RTÉ says that “11% (and growing) of households” don’t pay the TV licence because they don’t have a television, but can still watch RTÉ programmes on the RTÉ Player.

“This means a further loss of €20 million in public funding annually,” it said.

Ireland also has one of the highest TV licence collection costs in Europe, at €12 million every year, the RTÉ email said – mostly related to our relatively high evasion rate (it’s around 2% in Germany, 5% in the UK and 9% in Denmark).

“Overall, over €50 million is lost to public broadcasting every year; this is costing jobs – not just in RTÉ but right across Ireland’s audio-visual and creative sectors. In turn this drives UK and US dominance on our screens.”

A new reformed TV licence system has already been announced for 2024, which would be “device independent” – meaning that if you can play the RTÉ Player on it, you have to pay the charge. It’s not been decided yet whether the charge will be per household, like the current TV licence, or per person.

The ‘broken’ TV licence fee broken down

Each year, Ireland’s television owners must pay a €160 licence fee for their television, which goes towards funding RTÉ’s programming on television and radio.

The fee is paid to An Post, and TV licence inspectors go around checking to ensure people have paid. If they haven’t, they’re issued a fine, which can lead to a court appearance. This collection role is currently out to tender.

In 2018, €221 million was collected from the current TV licence system. A fixed percentage of 7%, worth €15.5 million last year, went to the Broadcasting Funding Scheme; around €16.43 million was paid to An Post in commission for collecting the TV licence, leaving €189 million for RTÉ.

But RTÉ has been making financial losses for the past four years: it had a net deficit of €13 million in 2018, with a deficit of €6.4 million in 2017, €19.4 million in 2016 and €2.3 million in 2015. 

Dr Roderick Flynn of DCU’s School of Communications has said that if you included the 12.8% of people who are evading paying for a licence for their television (the figure cited by Tánaiste Simon Coveney in the Dáil yesterday), it would cover the deficits RTÉ has had for several years. 

“So, right now, the system is beyond archaic, and based on the ownership of a device – first a radio set, then extended to a TV set. 13% of people with a television are not paying.” 

If everyone who had a television paid their licence fee, €254 million would be the total sum you would get, with an estimated €238 million being split that between Broadcasting Fund and RTÉ.

(It costs around €10 million to collect the fee, and the rest is based on commission. So we’ve given the same €16 million to An Post for collection services, but this would be higher as the collections increase).

The set 7% that goes to the Broadcast Fund would be around €16.66 million, meaning €221 million would have gone to RTÉ last year, which would have given it an extra €32 million.

“But if you add a system which would be sufficiently modern, it’s a bit more complicated than that,” Flynn says.

He points out that  “Dee Forbes isn’t talking about €30 million, she’s talking about €50 million,” indicating that the end goal for RTÉ isn’t to stop evasion rates, but to target media devices other than televisions – such as smartphones, laptops and tablets.

It’s claimed that the aim of this is to reflect the change in viewing habits – Forbes said during an interview with Morning Ireland that for the first time, more people watched the Rugby World Cup on the RTÉ Player than on television.

If a device-independent system is introduced, there would be “a lot more of those” €160 fees paid, Flynn says, but asks how you would calculate who does and doesn’t have a device.

In the 2016 Census, 81% of households had a computer (certain to be much higher now), and in 2018 the CSO said that 89% of households had access to the internet. 

“The other option is regardless of whether you have any devices in your house, you pay a levy based on the number of households in the State,” Flynn suggests.

In the 2016 Census, there were 1.7 million occupied households in Ireland. If they all paid equivalent to existing TV licence, there would be €271 million in public funding every year for RTÉ. 

Flynn says this ‘Household Broadcast Charge’ would mean that very little fees would be needed to collect the TV licence (because it would be applied as a flat rate to every household in Ireland), saving figures like the €16.6 million a year paid to An Post. 

Flynn argues that there wouldn’t be public outrage over this change, as it wouldn’t be a new tax.

“The water charge and the local property tax were new taxes, this is an existing sum of money, at exactly the same level that the licence fee is paid now.

The people who would be pissed off are those illegally avoiding paying, and legitimately, the 10% of people legally avoiding it [by not owning a television]. There’s almost no doubt that they are consuming at least some of that content – and it’s not produced by magic.

Flynn says that if it were starting from scratch now, he would model RTÉ along the lines of Channel4 and “basically commission things every year, with no large overheads”. Last year, RTÉ changed its approach to children’s programming, moving it to a commission model.

But he adds that the “crisis is here and now, and that RTÉ “is panting and it’s hemorrhaging”.

[I think introducing a new TV licence fee change like this was delayed because] it probably won’t be seen as that popular. In five years Richard Bruton won’t be the Minister for Communications, or maybe they’re hoping something will come along in the meantime. We’ve been doing this for 9 years now – not doing it.

“RTÉ will continue to run deficits until otherwise, which it’s not meant to under the State Broadcasting Act, so if the Dáil is willing to just nod those through [those deficits] this will continue.”

In response to a query from on whether the “device-independent” charge would be applied per household, or per individual, a spokesperson for the Department of Communications said:

“The government has accepted recommendations from a group set up to look at the funding of public service broadcasting and as a result it’s been agreed that the TV licence fee collection will be put out to tender for a contract of 5 years. By tendering for a contract of 5 years, this will allow the awarded body the chance to invest in a robust collection service.

“The government has also agreed that at the end of the 5-year contract period, the licence fee should be replaced by a device-independent broadcasting charge which takes account of technological change and will enable the sustainable funding of public service content in the longer term.

“How exactly this charge will be applied, is to be considered over the coming period.”

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