Comment: Action is needed now to save film and TV sector

Delays in establishing the Future of Media Commission is putting the independent production sector, and the jobs of 7,000 people, at risk

17th September, 2020
Comment: Action is needed now to save film and TV sector
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Connell and Marianne in the Irish-made but UK and US-funded hit drama Normal People

Marianne and Connell’s honest love caught the imaginations of Irish and world audiences. It is an Irish story from an Irish writer, set in Ireland, shot in Ireland by an Irish director and produced by an Irish company.

Yet the costs of production of the series were primarily funded by the BBC and Hulu, the US-based streaming service, with RTÉ making a small contribution to secure a licence to broadcast the series. Why is this?

This question goes to the heart of the dysfunction and failure in public service media policy in Ireland today.

Irish audiences are watching more content than ever, including on a range of broadcasting and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. But what about Irish stories and Irish-made content for Irish audiences?

In August 2019 Richard Bruton, then Minister for Communications, launched the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 2019. This included putting the collection of the TV licence fee out to tender for a five-year contract. After that, the minister said a household media charge, regardless of the technology used in the house, would be introduced.

According to ministerial briefing papers published for Catherine Martin, the new Minister for Media, this Bill has since been put on hold.

In December 2019 Bruton announced a new Commission on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting which was to report by September 2020 in time for Budget 2021.

Brian McCraith was appointed chair in January 2020 but nothing else happened. The programme for government published in June announced that this commission’s remit would be expanded to include print and online public service media and that it would report in nine months.

The Future of Media Commission’s new terms of reference have yet to be finalised and the full membership of the commission appointed. Meanwhile, the current “inefficient” TV licence fee collection system, with at least 12 per cent evasion, continues.

In November 2019 RTÉ was already in major financial difficulty and said it would reduce its workforce by 200 and cut costs by €60 million over three years.

The government announced additional funding for RTÉ, €10 million a year, with monthly oversight meetings with consultants NewEra and senior civil servants to monitor the cost-cutting measures.

Since then, mostly due to the Covid-19 crisis, RTÉ’s income from advertising and the licence fee has decreased by somewhere between 25 and 35 per cent. The state broadcaster has already reported four years of trading deficits, and the 2020 deficit is set to be by far the largest.

Will RTÉ still have to wait until the McCraith commission reports before there is any change to the TV licence fee collection system. Can it survive?

The regulation of the whole broadcasting and media landscape in Ireland, meanwhile, is about to radically change.

The EU Revised Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive of 2018 requires that Ireland must not only regulate broadcasting in Ireland but also all video-on-demand services and user-generated content services based in Ireland. This includes Google and Facebook, and involves the establishment of a new Media Commission, replacing the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, to do so.

The official deadline for the full implementation of the directive in Ireland is this Saturday. Draft legislation, the Online Harmful Content and Media Regulation Bill, was published in January and another draft is expected this month.

While the deadline may not be achieved, the eyes of Brussels will be on Ireland to implement this legislation as soon as possible. Will this happen before the McCraith commission reports?

The majority of peak-time programmes on RTÉ, excluding news, current affairs and sport, are not produced in-house by RTÉ. They are produced by a wide range of independent production companies. These shows include Operation Transformation, Ear to the Ground, Room to Improve and Dancing With the Stars as well as dramas such as Normal People and Young Offenders.

RTÉ is obliged to spend €40 million a year on independent production, reflecting EU policy since the late 1980s. The independent production sector relies extensively on this funding.

Recently RTÉ told the Oireachtas Covid-19 Committee that this investment obligation “may be compromised in 2020 both due to financial challenges and the logistics of production given the various social distancing regulations”.

This is hugely worrying for the 7,000 people with jobs in the independent production sector.

Screen Producers Ireland, representing the independent production sector, has written to Minister Martin to say the very sustainability of the sector and the jobs of those working in it are at risk.

The letter highlights major concerns about the delays in establishing the the Future of Media Commission. It also expressed worries that the report will not be delivered until after the bill to give effect to the Revised AVMS Directive is signed into law.

This is the most important piece of legislation in the media sphere in more than ten years and is designed to amend and replace large parts of the Broadcasting Act 2009.

Will there be the political energy after that bill is passed for another broadcasting/media bill in 2021/2022 to implement the McCraith commission report? What happens to RTÉ and the independent production sector in the meantime?

There is an opportunity for expedited decision-making now. If nothing changes, the future of the independent production sector in Ireland is in serious jeopardy.

Anthony Muldoon is the policy and communications manager of Screen Producers Ireland

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