Save it from what, exactly?

Former RTE reporter Charlie Bird has made an impassioned plea about the future of the national broadcaster, saying it is time people ‘got up off their backsides’ to highlight its precarious state.

He was commenting after the publication of a briefing document to Catherine Martin, the Minister for Media, which warned that ‘the financial sustainability of the organisation is now under immediate threat’

The ministerial brief noted: ‘Commercial income continues to decline primarily due to the rise of digital advertising on the social media platforms, Brexit uncertainty and the impact of COVID on advertising.’

And in a post on social media, Mr Bird, RTE’s former chief news correspondent, wrote: ‘I think it is time that people got up off their backsides to highlight the precarious financial situation of the public service broadcaster.’ He added: ‘Now is the time to wake up!’

RTE is, of course, in an enviable position, compared to its competitors, even if you ignore the massive subsidy it receives via the licence fee. In the world of television, it has exactly one direct competitor for English-language broadcasting in Ireland – Virgin Media, which operates on a fraction of its budget from a headquarters that might just about fit inside the RTE staff canteen.

It operates free to air, so all you need to receive its broadcasting is a television aerial and a small television. It has a captive audience of about four million people. Its main competitors are companies like Netflix and Amazon, who are producing subscription video streaming content, but you can’t turn on Netflix to get the latest coronavirus numbers or footage of nuns voting or whatever, can you?

In fact, if you asked any one of RTE’s domestic competitors to switch positions with it, they’d say yes in a heartbeat, if they weren’t too busy biting your hand off. State of the art facilities, a huge audience, and basically no competition: If RTE can’t make money in those circumstances, then you begin to suspect it’s a matter of competence, not circumstance.

The broadcaster’s spending has been highlighted often enough that repeating it ad nauseum feels pointlessly populist. But suffice to say, this tweet sums it up:

But in truth, though staff salaries are the easy thing to take a shot at, RTE’s spending problems are much deeper than that. Anyone who’s ever been a guest on its programmes, and also appeared on Virgin media, for example, will know that the sheer scale of the production efforts in RTE vastly outweigh what Virgin does. In RTE, you’ll have five or six cameras operated by individual cameramen – in Virgin media, the cameras are all remote control, by one person, in a production room. That’s not an argument for laying off a load of cameramen, but it is notable that Virgin Media can manage to produce live programmes of similar quality with many fewer staff.

The facts of RTE’s predicament are startlingly simple: It spends too much money to produce its programmes compared to its competitors, and those programmes still aren’t good enough to attract a big enough audience to make advertisers want to pay a premium. It has an additional problem too, in that the audience it does attract is increasingly older, and less attractive to advertisers. Advertisers want to be talking to young people who are dumb enough to spend their money on frivolities – but there aren’t many young people watching Nationwide these days, and there’s not much point advertising a €150 pair of Nike runners made in a sweatshop in China to a 70 year old Grandmother, is there?

The people who need to get up off their backsides aren’t the public – if they cared about RTE’s long term survival, they’d be foregoing their nightly date with Carol Baskin on Netflix to tune into Duncan Stewart wittering on about solar panels on Eco Eye. No, the people who need to get up off their backsides are in RTE itself, and there’s no sign of them doing so any time soon.