I will run three or four questions into one slightly lengthy initial opener. I praised RTE yesterday for the investment which has been made in programme-making on foot of the increase in the licence fee. There is no doubt it has had beneficial effects on the quality of broadcasting and the development of the independent sector which has never been stronger. However, my comments today will be very critical of RTE's trading arrangements with that very sector. If there are representatives in attendance from the Irish Playwrights and Screenwriters Guild or of independent screen producers, I would be interested to hear their comments.
My understanding is that RTE opposes the introduction of a code on fair trading practices which might change the current scenario in which it holds a 100% interest in the majority of material it commissions. It would be preferable if the organisation were to recognise that the financial investment in a programme is not the only investment and that creative investment is just as valuable an asset as the financial contribution. This could be done by transferring a proportion of rights to independent producers, screen producers or screen writers. Does RTE regard such a development as appropriate? What type of mechanism does Screen Producers Ireland seek? Should we follow the example of Ofcom in Britain or adopt a variation of that model?
From conversations with people involved in this sector, I understand that if the independent sector had a percentage share in programming it would be more ambitious and dynamic in selling the programming products into international markets. Ireland has a distinct advantage in that programmes are, by and large, produced in English. I understand RTE does not take a dynamic or progressive approach to selling programming produced here. It may even be in the organisation's interests to relinquish a share because such a step would lead to an increase in exports and while its return would no longer be 100%, it would be higher. If RTE does not support this idea, I ask its representatives to explain its reasons. I am interested in hearing from the representative of Screen Producers Ireland whether my brief summary of the position is accurate.
Yesterday, the joint committee discussed the fact that RTE rather than the commercial sector is the dominant commissioning body. I understand from discussions with those involved in the sector that one of the other unfortunate difficulties experienced by the independent sector is the nature of its relationship with RTE. On one side is a powerful single body with all the money, while on the other is a multiplicity of smaller producers. In such a relationship individual producers will lack power and, as a result, cut prices to the bone to secure a commission because the market is so competitive. This is not necessarily in the long-term interest of good programme making.
The experience of independent producers over the past three or four years is that RTE takes decisions in its annual decision making round on which programmes to commission two or three months late. This sets the whole industry back by three or four months and forces companies to play catch up. In addition, they must work to tightly priced commercial deadlines because of the imbalance in the market, with a single buyer dealing with a large number of sellers. I ask witnesses to comment.
I also request a response on the appropriateness of the code in specific areas of expenditure. For example, the independent fund commissioned within the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland will have an annual budget of, I believe, roughly €8 million, a not insignificant sum. When one considers that the Irish Film Board has a total annual budget of approximately €12 million, the €8 million figure constitutes a large chunk of commissioning money. Is it appropriate that a company seeking funding from the BCI must first have the broadcaster on board? Does this requirement not give RTE too much power over a large part of independent programming funding? It effectively gives the broadcaster editorial and commissioning control over the process.
These are some of the problems in the sector. A code, as set out in the proposed legislation, provides an opportunity to iron them out. Why not give the independent producers a percentage share in programming, as is the case in the United Kingdom? Perhaps we could go further than our counterparts in Britain. Should a code be introduced setting down timeframes within which RTE must make decisions and establishing a mechanism to shift power to the producers to address the imbalanced relationship between them and RTE and ensure the former are paid properly? This is the only way to sustain a proper industry in the long run. Why should the broadcaster be involved in the first phase of securing BCI funding for independent productions?