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 Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment to consider the future funding of our public service media and, indeed, how we might define that media. I also look forward to hearing Members’ 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 hand-held devices are impacting on Irish broadcasters’ audiences and revenues. In the case of public service broadcasters, these issues are affecting licence fee revenues. Online advertising revenue is now greater than television advertising revenue in Ireland, as it is in Europe. The consensus is 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.
Despite all this, our television and radio services have shown themselves to be resilient in the face of these challenges. Irish people still watch a great deal of live television, averaging over three hours a day. We also listen to a lot of radio, with eight out of ten adults listening on average to almost four hours per day. It is 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 carefully what we want our future media environment to look like and how it is to be funded.
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, 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.
RTE 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, and 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 RTE can engage with the public beyond its traditional role.
Having celebrated its 20th birthday last year, TG4 continues to provide significant support for the development of the Irish language independent production sector, Irish sport and cultural bodies and the Gaeltacht-based local economy. It supports the 20-year strategy for the Irish language and the promotion and development of the Irish language with children and 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 RTE's revenue to drop by over €100 million 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 television licence regime provide the best chance of stabilising funding in the short term.
I believe that the licence fee remains for now the most appropriate way of funding these services. Obviously, there are issues with this model. Evasion is high, at 13.75%, and the existing licence does not take account of the new ways audiences are choosing to access public service media. There is also a lack of public support for any alternative funding model. I made a judgment at an early stage that the Oireachtas would not pass legislation introducing a household broadcasting charge in any form. I also thought a licence fee increase unlikely. 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 past few years.
I recently submitted legislative proposals which would allow for the appointment of a television 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 television licences. An Post has made it clear to my Department that it finds the current television licence arrangements a burden and, in that context, would be keen to be able to tender for the new television 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.
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 Deputy, 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 and Vision scheme has provided a degree of support. To assist further, I am proposing that the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland may be allocated public funding from the television 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 he administered by the BAI much like the current Sound and Vision scheme.
The financial situation for Irish media organisations is now extremely serious and 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 to help build a successful independent production sector. For these reasons, I have decided to try to amend the existing TV licence regime 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 committee and in the Seanad today, I hope to prompt a discussion about where we want our public service media to be in five to ten years' time and how it will be funded.
Irish audiences need to be at the heart of our thinking. Some Members of this House will be familiar with the Creative Ireland programme which holds 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 media production. We need to ensure that the resources are there to allow that to happen. I look forward to hearing Senator's views.