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COMMENT: Proposed broadcasting charge needs to be fair

Monday, 12th August, 2019 7:59am

Story by Tony McCullagh
COMMENT: Proposed broadcasting charge needs to be fair

Many people watch television on their laptops. PHOTO: BIGSTOCK

COMMENT: Proposed broadcasting charge needs to be fair

Many people watch television on their laptops. PHOTO: BIGSTOCK

THE days of so-called television licence spongers hiding behind the couch every time there’s a knock on the door are set to become a thing of the past.

The TV licence inspector is the bogeyman of our generation. Yet the reality is that a very small minority, in the region of 13 per cent, fall into the sponger category. A further 10 per cent are legitimately avoiding the €160 annual charge because they choose not to own a telly. 

Changes to the TV licence system were flagged a while back when the matter was referred to the Working Group on the Future Funding of Public Service Broadcasting. The experts have now recommended that bidders should be sought for the collection of the television licence fee, a role traditionally held by An Post.

However, once this five-year collection contract expires, the Government plans to replace the television licence with a new ‘device independent’ broadcasting charge, hitting every household in the country that owns a laptop, smartphone or tablet device. Unless you live in a home without any electricity, you’re going to have to stump up.

The big assumption here is that everyone is rushing home in the evening to catch up on ‘Fair City’ on the RTÉ Player. Even if you only watch Netflix on your device, you will have to pay after 2024. Normal TV licence exemptions under the Household Benefits Package will apply, we are assured, so the new payment regime will largely bring the likes of cash-strapped students into the net.

In principle, I have no problem with the need for a sustainable funding model for public service broadcasting. RTÉ’s news content, both on radio and television, is generally excellent and the station’s recent exposures of scandals in the greyhound and childcare industries were examples of public service broadcasting at its finest. 

As a compliant licence fee payer, I’m less happy to be funding the eye-watering salaries of some of the station’s big stars. And do we really need three television stations? Personally, I’d keep TG4 for its important cultural role but could easily live without RTÉ 2. That would surely save a few bob and divert funds into independent film and current affairs programming.

The Government is correct to take the digital landscape into consideration in trying to future-proof public service broadcasting funding. However, by bringing in what will widely be viewed as a new household charge, it is arguably using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

All media organisations are striving to monetise their digital content and RTÉ shouldn’t be any different. A modest subscription fee to watch the RTÉ Player on a device might be one way of bringing those who don’t own a television set into the fold. There could even be a ‘per programme’ charge, meaning you only pay for what you want to watch.

Our politicians have five years to be a bit more inventive and come up with a public service broadcasting funding model that is both economically sound and fundamentally fair.

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