23 May 2017, Seanad Éireann
I thank the Seanad for the invitation to discuss the funding of public broadcasting.
The opportunity to discuss our views on 'public broadcasting' and its funding is both timely and welcome. Senators will be aware that I have asked the Joint Oireachtas Committee to consider the future funding of our public service media and indeed how we might define that media. So, I'm also looking forward to hearing your views on this important issue today.
Internationally, the broadcasting sector has seen enormous change due to the growth of digital and online technologies. Audiences now expect to be able to view or listen to whatever they want, whenever they want and usually at no extra cost.
Traditional broadcasters, both public and commercial, face increasing competition from large international players and need to adapt quickly to maintain their relevance, audience and commercial revenues.
The Irish market faces the same challenges as an ever-increasing number of non-Irish channels compete for audience share and advertising revenues. Competition from UK 'opt-out' channels is having a serious impact on the viability of Irish services. Brexit also had a significant effect on commercial revenue in the latter half of 2016. The increasing importance of online platforms and the use of handheld devices are impacting on Irish broadcasters' audiences and revenues and, in the case of public service broadcasters, licence fee revenues.
Online advertising revenue is now greater than television advertising revenue in Ireland, as it is in Europe and the consensus seems to be that commercial revenues are unlikely to return to where they were before the downturn. The increasing use of mobile data and improving broadband penetration will continue to drive greater choice for consumers.
Yet despite all this, our television and radio services have shown themselves to be very resilient in the face of these challenges. Irish people still watch a great deal of live TV - averaging over three hours a day. We also listen to a lot of radio, with eight out of ten adults listening for on average almost four hours/day. So it's not all bad news.
Even so, our broadcasters must adapt and remain agile enough to respond to the changing environment.
As legislators, we need to consider very carefully what we want our future media environment to look like and how it is to be funded.
Public Service Media
I believe that Irish audiences need and value strong, independent public service media.
In return for public funding, there are various standards that we expect, including high quality broadcasting and editorial independence. As politicians we expect a fair hearing on the issues which matter to us. More than ever now, we need trusted sources of information, with balanced, evidence-based comment and opinion. Despite the challenges they face, we expect our broadcasters to provide high quality programming that reflects our common experience and provides an Irish perspective on events and current affairs.
RTÉ plays a central role in raising public awareness and in helping to provide our society with a sense of culture and identity. It is a major provider of jobs and training; a source of skills and expertise for the wider sector; and of programme commissions for the independent production sector.
The success of the 2016 commemorative programme and more recently Cruinniú na Cásca over the Easter period show how successfully RTÉ can engage with the public beyond its traditional role.
Having celebrated its 20th birthday last year, TG4 continues to provide huge support for the development of the Irish language independent production sector; Irish Sport & Cultural Bodies and the Gaeltacht-based local economy. It supports the 20-Year Strategy for the Irish language; the promotion and development of the Irish language with children & young people and provides a worldwide Irish language service through the TG4 Player and online services.
Crucially, of course, this all requires funding. The serious challenges I have outlined, alongside significant falls in public funding, have caused RTÉ's revenue to drop by over €100m since 2008. TG4 has also suffered cuts in its public funding levels in recent years and is facing a major challenge to maintain or increase its audience numbers and commercial revenue.
Given the real and urgent pressures faced by our broadcasters, my priority has been to bring forward amendments to the existing regime. I want to be realistic and believe that amendments to the existing TV licence regime provide the best chance of stabilising funding in the short term.
I believe that the licence fee remains the most appropriate way of funding these services - for now. Obviously, there are issues with this model. Evasion is high (13.75%) and the existing licence doesn't take account of the new ways audiences are choosing to access public service media.
Also, there is a lack of public support for any alternative funding model. I made a judgement at an early stage that the Oireachtas would not pass legislation introducing a Household Broadcasting charge, in any form. Nor, did I think a licence fee increase was likely.
Since then, I have secured an additional €6 million allocation for licence fee funding in the Budget. This begins to reverse the cuts in public funding that the public service broadcasters were subject to over the last few years.
I have recently submitted legislative proposals which would allow for the appointment of a TV licence agent by public tender. Experience in the UK has shown that this can significantly reduce evasion.
It is my intention that the post office network should remain central to the sale of TV Licences. An Post has made it clear to my Department that it finds the current TV Licence arrangements a burden and, in that context, would be keen to be able to tender for the TV Licence Agency role on a more commercial footing.
These proposals will be considered further by the Joint Oireachtas Committee as part of its pre-legislative process.
Commercial & Community Broadcasters
Of course, commercial and community broadcasters are facing many of the same challenges.
The independent radio sector and community radio stations have been raising important questions about how we define public service broadcasting and about how, in its widest sense, it might be supported in the longer term.
As a rural TD, I have a good grasp of the important public service contribution of both commercial and community radio stations around the country. They play a vital role in providing local news and in maintaining the fabric of rural society.
However, the changing marketplace, alongside levy payments and the cost of news and current affairs obligations, places the longer term viability of some of these services at risk.
In recent years, the Sound & Vision scheme has provided a degree of support.
To assist further, I am proposing that the BAI may be allocated public funding from the TV licence receipts towards meeting its operating expenses. The BAI would be given greater scope to grant exemptions, deferrals or reductions in the levy for individual broadcasters or classes of broadcaster.
I have also proposed the creation of a new funding scheme that would allow the granting of bursaries to journalists in local or community radio stations. This would be administered by the BAI much like the current Sound & Vision scheme.
The financial situation for Irish media organisations is now extremely serious. We need to make choices. At a time when they need to transition and adapt to the new realities, our public service broadcasters are struggling to meet their objectives under the Broadcasting Act. The BAI's funding reviews make this clear. Failure to act and provide a secure and reliable funding stream will only bring a further decline in the relevance, audiences and viability of our broadcasters.
We need to provide a meaningful commitment to our public broadcasters.
They need adequate funding if they are to be able to compete, to commission Irish programming and help build a successful independent production sector.
For these reasons, I have decided to try to amend the existing TV licence system to improve the level of funding available as quickly as possible. Longer term, it is doubtful that the current system will be able to provide adequate funding to sustain viable public service media.
Therefore, through my engagement with the Joint Oireachtas Committee and here today, I hope to prompt a discussion about where we want our public service media to be in five – ten years, and how it will be funded.
need to be at the heart of our thinking.
Some of you will
be familiar with the Creative Ireland Programme, which states that: ‘Culture
and creativity are the greatest assets of any society. It is our duty to do
everything we can to unleash the full creative potential of our people.’
The same Programme
notes the significant opportunity for Ireland to be an international leader in
We need to ensure
that the resources are there to allow that to happen.
I look forward to hearing your