Public service and the future of television

RTE New Autumn launch 2012. Byline: Mac Innes photography RTÉ’s Head of Television, Glen Killane, talks to Owen McQuade about the prospects for public service television and how social media is helping to reach younger audiences.

Television in Ireland in 2013 is a “mixed landscape,” in Glen Killane’s view. Three years into his post as Managing Director of RTÉ Television, he observes that Irish producers both in the independent sector and within RTÉ are producing “some fantastic content” which is really hitting home with the audience.”

Killane elaborates: “Last year, 49 of the top 50 shows available on all channels in Ireland were Irish-produced and broadcast by RTÉ. So that is really a strong message. TV3 is also doing well with their home-produced content.”

Conversely, the advertising landscape is “very challenging” with those challenges partly driven by the recession but also by the number of UK ‘opt-outs’ that are selling advertising in the Republic’s market.

“There are now more than 30 channels selling advertising in the Republic of Ireland, for a market of just over 1.5 million homes and the vast majority of them do not produce one minute of Irish content,” he comments. “So if you are a London-based channel and are looking at the Irish market it is a no-brainer. You opt out and spend £200,000 on some infrastructure and you can clear £1 million per annum, which rolls over and rolls over.”

This, though, is a “further fragmentation of an already diminishing pie” which makes it harder for Irish broadcasters such as RTÉ and TV3 to maintain the revenues for production. “That whole funding model is very much in the spotlight at the moment,” he says, “but we believe that Ireland needs a strong domestic broadcast sector and that is from both a public service and commercial perspective.”

Killane acknowledges the criticism of the culture of RTÉ (and indeed other national broadcasters such as the BBC) in recent times. To him, this highlights the importance of accountability.

“We are in receipt of licence fees so it is important we are open to scrutiny and people can question how we do our business,” he adds. “It is important that we are as efficient as possible in order to drive value for the public.”

Over the last four years, RTÉ has had to take out over €100 million of its overall operating costs due to the fall in advertising. Indeed, among Europe’s public broadcasters, it has the heaviest dependence on advertising revenue.

“The general consensus is that it takes €350-400 million to run an organisation of our size,” he explains, pointing out that RTÉ’s operations include orchestras and minority radio stations such as Lyric and Raidió na Gaeltachta which do not drive revenue. “We get €180 million from the licence fee. So, under statute, we deficit-fund the remainder of our public service activities through commercial activities.”

This dual funding model has worked well as Ireland is a small economy. “I am not in any way ashamed to say we are commercially driven, as it goes into public service activities,” he reiterates. “On an efficiency basis, we have taken €100 million out and 25 per cent of our headcount out. We are a much leaner organisation but we have a huge challenge in the fall-off in advertising revenue.”

lh_day23-89 Social media

On social media, Killane says that he can be “one-eyed” about it in the future as he sees it as a useful tool in marketing. “It is a way of attracting audiences who are not fully engaged in what you do on a day-to-day basis,” he remarks. “These tend to be younger audiences, who would be more engaged with Sky1 or some of the digital services like Comedy Central, and social media enables us to get into the space they are in.”

The pre-transmission “buzz” for Love/Hate is a “great example” of using social media for word-of-mouth promotion. “People saw it and they reacted very positively to it,” Killane continues. “In a sense, Love/Hate was a game changer for RTÉ in the public perception of us. We had come through a very difficult editorial crisis and I think Love/Hate was a real fillip to the organisation at a time when we needed to show the audience the work of public service media.”

Neither drama nor comedy are commercially driven and bringing in new dramatic talent, acting and writing is “a real public service” which drives public service media organisations across the world e.g. the BBC and ZDF in Germany.

Social media helps to spread the message that RTÉ is “absolutely still focused on delivering the best possible content to the public.”

As for comedy, he says: “Without putting ourselves on a pedestal, I would say we are trying to be a force for good in Irish society.” Operation Transformation, for example, uses social media to engage with the public “in a way that is very positive for Irish society” by encouraging exercise, weight loss and healthy eating.

“That is a role that a public service organisation like RTÉ needs to adopt,” Killane states. “It was something that went across all our platforms and was a good example of how tri-media can work as its best.”

Crises and trust

Several editorial crises have hit RTÉ and its UK counterpart this year so have public service broadcasters lost their way?

“At its core, what those crises were about was how important trust is for a public service broadcaster,” he comments. “What differentiates RTÉ, and the BBC, from others is that we act on behalf of the public and we have the public interest at heart at all times. We are not motivated by profit but by public interest. We don’t have to answer to shareholders.”

Killane accepts that public trust in both organisations has been damaged but adds that the Breach of Trust documentary, about the care of children in crèches, showed that RTÉ is “committed to working on behalf of the public” and also committed to the core public service values of information, education and entertainment, introduced by Lord Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General.

“It is difficult and it takes courage to deliver those types of shows, and sometimes you get it wrong,” he comments. “We have introduced a range of initiatives and guidelines to do everything humanly possible to ensure mistakes do not happen.”

On that point, does he see a risk of RTÉ becoming too risk-averse? “Yes definitely, I do,” he responds, “but the only way to avoid that is to constantly reinforce our values, and that investigative journalism and exposing the wrongs in society is a core principle of the organisation.”

Those values were underpinned by the Director-General in his statement of output commitments in children’s, arts and culture, investigative journalism, comedy and drama programming.

Television is very much moving towards a multi-platform model, and he brings a substantial amount of experience in that area from several years in RTÉ Sport. That branch of the broadcaster, he recalls, was “ahead of the curve.”

RTÉ Sport tried to negotiate rights with Sky Sports, which has revenues of £6 billion per year, but realised that “we are not in their league.” Despite stiff competition, RTÉ had good audience engagement across a range of platforms but these were not joined up.

“Sport was one area you could have a consistent approach editorially across all platforms,” he remarks. “The editorial vision needed to be consistent but not identical. For example, we covered tennis and more golf online; we didn’t cover tennis at all on television.” Cycling is covered on radio but not television.

“The totality of the exposure is important,” Killane adds. “It is also very good from a staff point of view, giving someone from television experience in radio and online, and they learn from each other.”

It is also more efficient. Instead of sending radio, television and online reporters to a press conference with Giovanni Trapattoni, RTÉ sends one person for everything. “The hardest part is the cultural shift and changing the mind-set,” he says in conclusion. “It takes time to get people working differently across platforms but there will always be roles for specialists.”

Profile: Glen Killane

Glen Killane was appointed Managing Director of RTÉ Television in June 2010, following on from various sport-related roles. At RTÉ, he has been Series Editor of The Sunday Game and has led production of the Rugby World Cup (1999), Champions League (2000) and Six Nations (1998-2000). He was also the Executive Producer of RTÉ’s coverage of the Special Olympics in Ireland in 2003. He was appointed Head of RTÉ Sport in 2004 and Group Head of Sport in 2006, a position he held until 2010. He also spent two years with ITV Sport (2000-2002). Born in Malahide, he studied English at Trinity College Dublin and holds an MA in journalism from DCU.

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