Is RTÉ Worth the Licence Fee?
As more students fail to own a television, find Ciara Roche looks at what RTÉ needs to do to capture the next generation of licence fee payers…
Regarded by the Irish Times as “RTE’s best ever drama,” Love/Hate has returned to our screens on Sunday nights to much anticipation. However, the title of the program may also reflect the rocky relationship many young adults have with the state funded television network and its programming.
Although Robert Sheehan kept tight-lipped about Darren’s killer on his recent trip to UCD, his visit did show how big a hit the programme has become with the young adults of Ireland. Showcasing gritty crime drama that could have been ripped right out of the pages of the Sunday World, the show was praised as worthy of competing with, and almost beating, the American crime programs that smother the schedule of RTÉ. Yet much of the praise for Love/Hate stems from how it clashes with the most popular channel in Ireland’s usual schedule. Whilst Love/Hate’s slick production values and contemporary edge are worthy of acclaim, they throw the banality of much of the surrounding schedule forward.
UCD students showcased their overwhelming interest in quality television when UCD Film Society put on four screenings of the Breaking Bad finale due to unprecedented interest. Societies such as L&H and LawSoc have chosen international television stars such as Patrick J. Adams of Suits, and Martin Freeman of Sherlock as prestigious guests. Quality programming has a clear audience amongst students and young people under 35. Figures from social media sites, where this age group are the most prolific and engaged users, show that television is still the most trending daily topic on most sites. Although the methods by which we watch television may be rapidly changing with many students opting for the ease of online players and illegal streaming sites, our interest in television shows has not waned. Television in the past decade has risen to unprecedented heights. Quality programming now attracts respected writers, actors and budgets that were once reserved for television’s older brother, film.
Programming now stands on an international stage where shows can be extremely lucrative for a station when sold on the global market.
Love/Hate has already been sold to Channel 5 in the U.K and hopes of a breakthrough for RTÉ on the international television market are abound. The commissioning director of drama in RTÉ claims that the commissioning of Love/Hate was a direct reaction to the recent upsurge in quality television drama, “we would want our drama to be of a global standard. We would want it to sit alongside ‘Homeland’ and whatever other series the audiences are interested in.”
Yet where in the RTÉ schedule can we find any other examples of this drive for competitiveness with established stations such as HBO and BBC? RTÉ Two, which is aimed at the 35 and under audience, achieves only an average of 7% audience share. Filled almost entirely with imported shows, RTÉ Two is seemingly failing to establish its own identity. When many of RTÉ Two’s programmes may be viewed on the internet faster and easier than watching them on a television set, many would ask why is there an oversaturation of these obviously failing shows? The last RTÉ Two produced drama was Raw in 2008 which after being moved to RTÉ One was subsequently cancelled this year to leave room in the budget for fresher drama. Raw, whilst sometimes having up to 250,000 viewers, received mixed reviews that lamented RTÉ’s reluctance to leave behind it’s old-fashioned image. This image has stayed with the station. Father Ted writer Graham Linehan laughed off claims that the show was rejected by RTÉ back in 1996, and suggested that the network’s reputation completely obliterated any doubts that they would commission such a controversial show.
This could spell trouble for RTÉ in the future. RTÉ is funded predominantly by the tv licence and as such, it needs to keep proving to viewers that the €160 fee is worthwhile. For young people beginning to pay bills for the first time, forgoing a television set in order to skip another bill is fast becoming the norm, “we are all big fans of english channels such as E4 and BBC three but none of us ever really watch RTÉ,” claims 3rd year student Ellen O’Leary. “I associate the channel with old-fashioned shows such as The Late, Late Show and Reeling in the Years… I don’t feel there is much for me to watch on Irish television,” she added.
RTÉ’s attempts at securing a young market has received mixed success. Reality soap Fade Street followed the plot of enormously popular MTV show The Hills – young girls making it in the big city and the dramas that come with it. However, the show did not successfully generate an audience. Appearing like a cheap and unsuccessful copy of American television trends, the show only reconfirmed claims that RTÉ Two was failing to deliver to its young audience. Comedy and entertainment output has also found itself with mixed reactions. The biting satire of The Savage Eye may have given RTÉ Two a surprising contemporary edge, but with stereotype-inducing acts such as the Rubberbandits and Hardy Bucks strolling onto the schedules years after they became popular on the internet, RTÉ has continued to fail to find an original hit.
RTÉ may be joining the modern age by investing in the iplayer and realising that television viewing habits are changing, but for a state sponsored broadcaster, its failure to represent and appeal to the entire nation can not be ignored. The budget for RTÉ has steadily reduced in recent years, and it’s claimed that the recession has adversely affected funding for the programming RTÉ produces. Yet TG4 uses its tiny licence fee budget to produce original programming with much greater success. Reflecting the interests of Irish speakers, young and old, the channel also offers independent producing companies the chance of commission. TG4’s rare imported shows include critically acclaimed dramas such as Oz and Breaking Bad, establishing the station a surprising young audience. Chief Executive of rival Irish station TV3 has claimed that RTÉ’s state support is “excessive and anti-democratic.” Although a rival of RTÉ, his is an ever increasing opinion. Should RTÉ become a fully commercial station, sever its ties with the state and get rid of the licence fee? Journalist Martina Devlin urges that as payers of a licence fee to an Irish state owned station we are “entitled to distinctively Irish content” yet we may “search in vain for any originality.” RTÉ is based on the same model the internationally famous network BBC who is also currently facing criticism and the suggestion that it be privatised from the Tory Government and Britain’s biggest selling newspaper, The Daily Mail. However, content speaks for itself and the international appeal and critical acclaim of much of BBC’s output greatly contrasts with RTÉ’s current reputation.
Nonetheless, there appears to be a light at the end of the television screen. The recent commission of a drama based on the controversial political life of Charles Haughey injects some much needed contemporary, topical storytelling into the Irish schedule. Love/Hate is enthusiastically backed by RTÉ One and producers are already in talks about a fifth series. RTÉ may be slow to catch up with the rest of the world’s upsurgence in quality content, but don’t discount the tiny island responsible for some of the greatest authors and playwrights just yet.