Every year thousands of people are brought before the Irish courts for failing to pay their TV licence, of which several hundreds are sent to prison – a hugely disproportionate number compared to the UK.
In the 1920’s, entertainment-based broadcasters took the first hesitant steps toward the wireless revolution, but nations across the world imposed a vice-like grip on the airwaves. Rather than allowing this nascent industry develop, it was decreed that license payers would fund organisations, such as Lord Reith’s BBC, dedicated to society’s edification, under noble, if patronising, public service remits.
The Internet would gradually challenge the status quo, by offering a near infinitude of e-content from around the world. Broadcasters painted themselves into the proverbial corner, with digital platforms offering many more channels. Licence fees and advertising did not proportionally increase so cheap programming, and a reliance on repeats, became a necessity.
Advertisers are shifting increasingly to the Internet. RTE, with its 50% reliance on advertising, has failed to achieve the kind of revenue that was taken for granted pre-Recession.
It has been harder for the private broadcasting sector. As quasi-commercial monopolies, state broadcasters, such as RTE, make survival extremely difficult for private broadcasters. RTÉ has strayed more overtly from its public service remit, by offering an undue amount of highly commercialised content, thereby pressuring a shrinking broadcast advertising market. RTÉ’s report, Strategy 2012-2017, indirectly recommends increased public funding to future-proof their market dominance.
In August 2011, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland criticised RTÉ for charging excessive broadcast fees to private operators, for use of its ‘2RN’ SaorView platform. Pricing was also deemed too variable for business model projections. TV3 also alleged excessive pricing for broadcast access. The contrast with the success of Britain’s FreeView service is stark.
Such criticism, and the numerous expressions of interest from outside parties in Saorview that came to nought, reinforce the notion that private companies often find the Irish market unattractive. UTV’s rollout on SaorView has failed, even though the channel was prepped for the market, adopting much of TV3’s most popular content. Both channels have now been sold, but the market remains challenging,
More for less
Can there be better in post–Brexit Ireland’s challenging economic climate? Proposals have been put forward to better fund RTE: Increasing the licence fee; Increasing the fee to fund RTE without any advertising; Privatisation; Introducing universal household broadcasting charges. Levies are politically unattractive, post-IrishWater, while licence fee increases will probably result in more defaulters.
Privatisation is a radical but practical solution. Public radio and TV stations garner large audiences so should be an attractive commercial proposition. The State will receive substantial sums, while private investment will make the newer content-starved SaorView channels viable entities in their own right.
The SaorView platform has been flagged for sale but risks creating a private monopoly, which may be less inclined to reduce broadcast fees and improve transmission infrastructure. If the transmission platform is kept in public hands, it can ensure a low rental cost for broadcasters as an added impetus for the uptake of channels. The rental of channel bandwidth should cover the cost of SaorView’s upkeep.
But what of public service broadcasting in such a liberalised market? Private channels could have an expanded mandate to carry a significant amount of traditional public service content. Ideally, public service broadcasting should offer contrast in an age where inexpensive reality-based, youth-orientated programming is prevalent. Community-based content, in-depth investigative reporting, Irish language programming, etc., would need some level of financial assistance.
Privatisation will also bring a greater plurality of voices into what is a largely monophonic broadcast industry, but has risks. The BAI’s regulatory capacity could substantively guide tender processes, and adopt an efficient overseeing capacity, to reduce the force of politically prejudicial content.
State funding could therefore be orientated toward programme making, for radio, television, and web-based material, which possesses limited commercial viability. It can target programming that is largely absent from commercial channels, instead of acting as an influence that distorts the market.
These costs would be borne by the taxpayer – akin to New Zealand’s funding model. However, with fewer areas of activity to be funded, since broadcaster running costs will be nullified, the sum would be significantly less than current per household costs. Taking these funds from a tiny component of the annual tax take will avoid the administrative costs of inspection, collection, and especially punishment. It would also be more equitably imposed, because it would be derived from income tax.
The absence of a monopoly, with a strong influence in determining the marketplace, will likely attract considerably more inward investment. An open internationalised market will bring the likelihood of domestic growth in program making for overseas markets. Ireland has a strong international presence, which allied with its use of English, should give it significant commercial advantages in this respect.
Rob Harris occasionally contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He lives in Dublin.