No sooner had the toys from this year’s Late Late Toy Show been tidied away than the RTÉ suits were turning their attention to the real business of the night – the audience rating figures.
It may term itself as a mere toy show but this is serious business. RTÉ and the mainstream media are fighting for survival. Audience figures equate with advertising revenue and of late there has been no more bloody battleground than primetime television.
On the face of it, this year’s numbers look impressive – an average audience of 1.3m representing 74% of available audience. Not surprisingly, the RTÉ suits are putting on their corporate happy faces and expressing their delight with the audience figures.
The problem with state broadcaster RTÉ (and much of new Ireland) is that when you scratch beneath the PR blather you start finding a different story. Of course, the big problem for RTÉ and all television stations is that large numbers of people have simply stopped watching them.
Nowadays, the average audience size for the Late Late Show is closer to 500,000. As recently as 2008, the Friday night flagship show could command an average audience of 650,000 while under the reign of King Gaybo, the average figure routinely hit a million. The fact that the population of Ireland has increased by close on 2 million over the same period puts these declining audience ratings in their proper context.
RTÉ television was set up as a national public service broadcaster in 1962. Back then, setting up a TV station meant concentrating a lot of chunky technology in one central location. Over the intervening half-century the world of technology has changed beyond recognition. The question is; to what extent has the RTÉ public service funding model changed to keep pace with this?
But first – where does your €160 public service broadcasting licence fee actually go? In 2017, An Post collected a total of €216m in licence fees. Of this, €186m went to RTÉ with the remaining €30m divided between the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and TG4. This model of funding may have been suitable in the 1960’s but just how fit for purpose is it today?
No one doubts that there aren’t genuine public service elements to RTÉ’s output. The problem is the lack of transparency in a model which basically involves handing over €186m a year to a media organisation in the hope that it will deliver public service broadcasting. In this way, it’s the RTÉ organisation which gets to decide what exactly constitutes public service broadcasting.
Take Dancing With The Stars (currently top rating on Sunday evenings). Entertaining it may be but you have to ask how this UK derived programme franchise fits in with RTÉ’s remit for public service broadcasting?
RTÉ’s problems run a lot deeper than the somewhat gauche dance moves of its celebrity dancers. It likes to convey the image of a neutral media selflessly facilitating public debate and adding to the cultural life of the nation. However, this notion has been tested on many occasions.
The 1970’s and 80’s saw the disproportionate influence of the leftist Workers’ Party over RTÉ’s current affairs programming. Equally, who can forget the collective anti-clerical groupthink of RTÉ’s current affairs which produced the hatchet job on the character of Fr. Kevin Reynolds. In more recent times, it’s feminism and identity politics which seem to be holding sway in Donnybrook.
In this context, the treatment of the War of Independence in the five part RTÉ series Resistance is of particular interest. Given its liberal ethos, it’s hardly surprising that a historical drama involving socially conservative nationalists might cause a dilemma for programme makers at RTÉ. However, it now looks like viewers will be treated to the spectacle of the War of Independence as viewed through a feminist prism.
Even after just one episode, this has produced some bizarre storylines. David Neligan and Ned Broy, Collins’ real life double agents inside Dublin Castle, apparently get airbrushed out of the story – presumably because they were the wrong gender. Likewise, a totally unrelated storyline about an IRA man in Cork and adoption gets airbrushed in although neither had anything remotely to do with either Dublin Castle or Collins’ spying operations.
This may be drama but is it really historical drama? Resistance seems to be more about satisfying the ideological needs of those making the series than it is about informing the public about the War of Independence. Here, it’s the RTÉ organisation which seemingly gets to decide what constitutes public service broadcasting.
It’s hardly surprising that RTÉ appears to be functioning as the national unofficial media partner for feminism and gender identity – after all, the organisation’s leadership is much the same as the elites who now rule Ireland. Interestingly, while RTÉ has embraced the concept of ‘diversity’ with gusto, it appears that this extends only to those who share the same opinion.
Instead of RTÉ existing to serve the licence fee payers, it seems more like the licence fee exists to serve RTÉ. Indeed, a lot of careers have been built on the back of the present model of public service broadcasting not least the celebrity ‘talent’ who have gorged themselves from the RTÉ trough for many years.
Funding a media corporation in South Dublin and trusting it to deliver public service broadcasting may have made sense half a century ago. The technological advances of the intervening years have now rendered this model redundant.
With its shrinking audience share, it is obvious that RTÉ faces major challenges. Attempts at presenting itself as ‘modern’ and ‘relevant’ by throwing its lot in with the latest liberal fad only serve to highlight this need for reform.
Public service broadcasting is worth fighting for. That’s why there is a pressing need for reform of RTÉ and the funding model which supports it. The licence fee payers are the ones who fund public service broadcasting in Ireland – it’s time they got what they’re paying for.