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RTE Digital and the value of the licence fee

Last Saturday I spoke at the National Media Conference. It was an excellently organised day. I was embarrassed to be sent out with the quality of experts they had assembled. After all, unlike all the people speaking who make their living in the media, I have no more expertise than any other reader in their industry.

Nonetheless, having participated in a refreshingly sane and reasonable discussion about the meaning and impact of Leveson to the media here, I went next door where Brian Dobson from the telly was moderating a discussion about the future of television.

“Soon, live events will be all that we watch on TV”

The panel consisted of Independent Producer Trisha Canning, PJ Moloney from the Trinity Film Society, and Múirne Laffan the Managing Director of RTÉ Digital.

It was Ms. Laffan’s contributions which interested me most. She denied that RTE Digital was the beneficiary of any of the licence fee money.

The problem with that, as any other online venture in the country will tell you, is that it is obviously not accurate. RTÉ Digital may not get cash from the licence fee. But it surely gets enormous value from it.

Leave aside all the videos and audio recordings has access to from the broadcaster’s output. Consider only the online part of its efforts. If I started a web company with identical content to RTÉ.ie called I would not have anything like the RTÉ Digital visitor rate. The RTÉ brand is surely the strongest in Irish media. Its place in the hearts, hearths and minds of Ireland was built over decades of dual-funded (ad revenue and licence fee) activity. Prior to TV3’s appearance, Ireland’s visual memory of itself came solely from and through RTÉ. Of course has benefited from those decades of public money.

This is not an original thought. It was precisely to deal with this state-incumbent advantage that the ESB consumer facing section was forced to rebrand as Electric Ireland. If I can see it and the Energy Regulator can see it, surely Ms. Laffan, formerly of McCann, can see it too.

What caught my imagination was how old fashioned that form of assertion felt.

There we were, the audience. And there was RTÉ in front of us. Telling us things at least one of us didn’t believe to be true.

If RTÉ Digital is truly to become a stand-alone commercial entity it will have to follow ESB’s example and shed the skin of its priceless branding. It will also have to start paying the other parts of RTÉ (which are funded by public money) for their programming at commercial rates.

If I were a struggling newspaper publisher it is that- and not the fever dream of having access to the licence fee money directly- which I would be lobbying for.