27/06/2002

RTE licence fee debate rages on

The licence fee debate in the Republic has deepened over the past week with a number of interested parties weighing in.

RTÉ has moved to reject TV3 chief executive Rick Hetherington's criticism that the licence fee increase last September was effectively smothering smaller independent broadcasters.

Mr Hetherington said the €18.35 licence-fee rise had a "devastating effect" on the private sector as RTÉ used the funding boost to lower its advertising rates. Lower prices in advertising had meant that publicly funded organisations were stifling competition in the commercial marketplace, he claimed.

Mr Hetherington said that, as some broadcasters police themselves, the market was filled with "unregulated competitors fuelled by unrestricted State aid" – which made independents (like TV3) unable to compete for investment.

RTÉ responded in a statement saying that the worldwide advertising market was depressed and it was this that had affected rates – not the licence fee increase – and it was "untrue" to suggest otherwise.

Then at the Forum On Broadcasting in Dublin yesterday, Dermot Hanrahan of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland heaped more pressure on the corporation by proposing that the licence fee be replaced by a tax on subscription-based channels.

The tax, he said, could be transferred to the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland to whom broadcasters – including RTE – could make applications for money through the central slush fund.

However, during his speech Mr Collins re-iterated his call for greater funding for the corporation saying that it was languishing beneath the EU funding average. Mr Collins has said that a fee hike to €152 would be the minimum to see the corporation clear of its €71 million deficit in 2001. The government has been reported as not enthusiastic over licence fee increase proposals.

Also at the Forum, RTÉ director general Bob Collins revealed plans for the corporation to adopt more transparent accounting practises from next year.

Mr Collins also told delegates that from the first quarter of 2003 "there will be a degree of transparency and openness in the way RTE presents its information". He said that the change was long overdue and he expected the corporation to institute a five-year review which would evaluate RTE's strategy for the future and review its performance in the market.

The situation at RTÉ has seemed increasingly worrisome as a report from KPMG and Logical delivered to the RTÉ Authority today is expected to say that recent restructuring programme – which including 460 job losses – has not been as successful as had been hoped.

(GMcG)


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