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RTE is facing a crisis of content
Blogs | 08 Oct 2012 :
In just under two weeks the analogue broadcast signal will switch off for good and anyone currently using an aerial without suitable decoder equipment (be it a set-top box or TV with built-in MPEG4 receiver) will be greeted with a blank screen. How well the population is prepared has been a matter of some debate in recent weeks. According to Government figures, awareness of the switch-off is running at about 94% (93% in urban areas which would be less affected owing to greater cable penetration). According to figures from a survey conducted by Amarach on behalf of Toshiba that awareness hasn't translated into equipment sales, where it was reported than only half of respondents were sufficiently prepared. One imagines there will be a last minute rush on decoder boxes and 'installers' will make a tidy sum off installing Saorview/satellite TV packages in the coming week.
Side note: decoder boxes start from as little as €60 and most new TVs come with MPEG4 tuners as standard and there is no such thing as a 'digital aerial' as some installers would have you believe. Don't get lured into paying more than you need to.
The shift in technology from analogue to digital also marks an organisational change in RTE with the spinning off of the company responsible for managing the broadcasting infrastructure: RTE Networks Ltd. (RTENL). Again, this is a positive move as service providers gradually become divested of the networks they use. No greater mistake was made by the State as when it floated eircom the service and eircom the network as one entity. This decision alone set back the State a good 10 years in terms of investment in broadband and created the issue of local loop unbundling - but that's an argument for another day.
RTE's greatest challenge from the digital switchover isn't in getting the word out to consumers but what to do after. Right now the offering is only moderately better than terrestrial: RTE 1, RTE2 (in HD), TV3, TG4 and TV3 bulked up by 3e, RTE News Now, RTE Jnr and RTE 1 +1.
If this sounds an awful lot like the situation with DAB where RTE is the sole operator you'd be right - once again the national broadcaster is legally obliged to carry a service commercial stations have no interest in (RTE was the third option to run DTT and was selected only after the first two successful bids from industry collapsed). The commercial possibilities of DAB+ - recently launched and managed in Ireland by a private operator - will become apparent over the coming year.
RTE's post-switch over problems are twofold: how to provide a contemporary service beyond merely replacing what could be picked up over the old service and how to keep people tuning in when there are alternatives to broadcast TV flooding the Internet.
Solving part one of the above comes down to attracting more broadcasters and producing more material people want to see - much more easy said than done, but such has been our contention for a long time. People will pay for 'better' and if RTE can continue to produce quality content - balancing public service with light entertainment - then it will go some way to clawing back that elusive 20% (estimated) who don't pay the licence fee.
The second problem, that of alternatives being available online, is far more problematic. Right now you can bypass having to pay the licence fee at all by chucking out your TV and relying on a broadband connection to pick up the live streaming service AerTV (operated by Magnet). Failing that you can use the catch-up service on the RTE Player online via the website or its dedicated apps on mobile and, now, smart TVs - also without having to pay the licence.
The common theme here is how the licence fee is administered. There is a lot of money out there to be collected but patchy enforcement means those who don't want to pay it can easily avoid it, while those who do feel shortchanged for what they get in comparison to the BBC. Without the fee RTE can't invest in better programming, because better programming isn't already in place people refuse to pay. The market is a snake eating its own tail.
How to solve the problem? At the recent RTE50 conference held in UCC I proposed a solution to the problem and it started with a bold suggestion: scrap the licence. Most would agree with this starting point. The advent of the second screen and online services mean consumers watch TV differently and the licence only covers part of that experience. By shifting the licence to cover incoming media from anywhere - yes, I am advocating a broadband tax - it more accurately reflects the viewing patterns of the nation.
Second, for all those moaners out there who complain about the licence subsidising the Rose of Tralee and Saturday Night Show I give you the following: If you want to watch a specific kind of content you should be able to support only the elements of the broadcaster you actually enjoy. This could be broken down on a department-by-department basis managed by mobile access. To explain: if you are interest in documentaries you should have to buy an app called 'RTE Factual' for a modest annual subscription (say €5). This fee would give you access to the entire back catalogue in that category and put your money directly towards funding that wing of RTE. Similar with RTE Drama, RTE Children, RTE Sport, RTE Entertainment and so on.
This combination broadband tax and subscription app system would fulfill the needs of broadcasters (TV3 and independents benefit from the licence too) while giving audiences something of value reflecting their interests.
Paying for better? Why not? Your broadcaster needs you. And some new ideas.