Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Questions (34)

David Cullinane

Question:

34. Deputy David Cullinane asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the additional funding outside of moneys from TV licence fees that will be given to RTÉ in 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [42322/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

What additional State funding, if any, outside of the television licence funding will be given to RTÉ in 2020.

RTÉ is dual funded through a proportion of television licence fee receipts and the commercial revenue it generates. An Post pays my Department all TV licence revenues collected from direct sales of TV licences.

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection also makes a contribution to my Department in respect of free TV licences issued under the household benefits scheme. In 2019, the Exchequer contribution from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was €59.9 million. RTÉ will receive additional funding of €8.6 million this year.

My Department deducts commission payable to An Post for its agency role and 7% of the net receipts goes to the broadcasting fund, which is operated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. In addition to licence fee funding, a total of €8 million was allocated in budget 2017 to compensate RTÉ for the relevant costs for re-engineering Saorview, the digital terrestrial television network. This is in line with an EU decision which obliges member states to migrate terrestrial broadcasting services from the 700 MHz spectrum band to allow for its use by wireless broadband services. A simulcast period commenced on 4 September 2019 and the migration will be completed in March 2020.

We had a lengthy debate on public broadcasting in the House recently. This is an issue we need to take very seriously. It was discussed yesterday in private session at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Change and Environment and an the invitation will be sent to the Minister, the Department and RTÉ to come back to the committee to discuss some of the issues involved. There is no doubt that there are cultural, organisational, financial and structural changes that RTÉ has to make. The station must take the lead in that regard. It has stated that there is a funding crisis but there is a broader issue relating to public broadcasting which needs to be examined. There are casualties that arise as a result of a public broadcaster not having the resources to spend on, for example, independent productions. As the Minister is aware, the funding that was spent by RTÉ on independent production in recent years has decreased from €80 million to €40 million. That has not been without consequences. These are companies that produce good quality content domestically. Their work saves RTÉ from having to purchase syndicated programmes from America and Britain and creates jobs in communities. Is the Minister conscious of that and would he support putting in place not just targets but ring-fencing money for RTÉ in order to ensure that there is more funding for independent production?

As already stated, the approach to funding RTÉ is set out in law. Funding for the station comes from licence fee income. The only direct Exchequer payment is from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, which pays a sum in lieu of licence fees for those who receive free television licences. In the context of the challenges it faces, RTÉ is developing a strategy. It has engaged PwC and the BAI to evaluate certain aspects of that strategy. At my request, the Department has asked NewERA to examine the strategy also. Work has been done by RTÉ in developing a strategy for sustainability, which is its responsibility.

As discussed previously in the House, there are issues as to whether we should reform the licence fee. I have proposed that the collection of licence fees should go out to tender because this would assist in reducing the evasion rate. I have also proposed a move, in the longer term, to a licensing arrangement that would be independent of particular instruments. Those decisions have been made.

If a cheque is written for RTÉ, it will be signed by the Accounting Officer of the Department, namely, the Secretary General. There is a service level agreement of sorts between the Department and RTÉ. Within that agreement, there is conditionality in respect of, for example, the percentage of money which must be spent on the Sound & Vision scheme.

My question relates to independent productions. The which goes to that sector has decreased from €80 million to €40 million. As already stated, that has not been without consequences. There are many independent production companies that hire young actors. There is a great deal of talent that we can showcase on the international stage. Some of the programmes that have been produced by these companies have been first class but they are being starved of money as a result of the cut in funding from €80 million to €40 million. Why can we not ensure that, as part of the service level agreement, more money is spent on independent production? RTÉ has stated that it does not have the money which means that we must return again to the issue of funding. Even with the funding the station has, greater investment should be made in independently-produced, quality programming that is made here and that creates jobs. Taxpayers' money must be spent much more effectively on this type of programming.

While there are, as the Deputy stated, provisions within the legislation which direct that money be streamed from the licence fee income of 7% towards Sound & Vision and while RTÉ meets certain obligations in respect of independent broadcasting, its primary relationship is with the BAI, which is its regulator, not with the Minister of the day. The BAI evaluates RTÉ's performance against key performance indicators it sets. As the Deputy is aware, the BAI has indicated that additional funding should be provided to RTÉ. To date, the Government has provided €10 million in this regard. The figure suggested by BAI was €30 million over the period to 2022. The pressure was on this year, particularly within the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, to try to find money when no social welfare funding increases were made. The Deputy will understand how difficult it was to find money against that background.

We can consider issues relating to the broadcasting legislation that is before the House. If Members wish to discuss ways of amending the position in respect of funding, that can be done. The approach favoured by the Oireachtas of having a charge independent of device was evaluated. I am advised that this could only be done within a certain period. As a result, a period of five years has been set before that will be produced.