A question that hasn’t been asked of RTÉ — but probably should be, considering the rolling crises the broadcaster finds itself in — is this. Do the executives in RTÉ know what they’re doing? The producers know how to produce, the presenters know how to present, the editors know how to edit, the crews know how to shoot, light, and run the floor, the researchers know how to research, the anchors know how to deliver news bulletins, the reporters know how to report, the workers compiling brilliant sports and other programming promos, all seem to know what they’re doing. We know this because we see it and hear it every day.
But the people at the top? Should we be worried?
The reason I ask this is that RTÉ has found itself navigating a series of eye-widening screw-ups that are failures of strategy, planning, vision, and decision-making, the kind of big-picture things that the average RTÉ worker is very far away from in terms of responsibility. None of these messes are due to external factors. They have all been self-generated. The we’re-in-deep-trouble messaging from the top in RTÉ — both to Government and the public — tends to orientate around the unacceptable dawdling when it comes to modernising what a licence fee should look like, public funding more generally, and a financial crisis that is the result of multiple environmental factors leading to rounds of redundancies and land being sold off in a scramble for savings and injections of cash. Yet over the past six months, RTÉ only has itself to blame when it comes to the problems it has faced.
Why is RTÉ not producing a succession of hit podcasts that get the nation talking? How can small independent teams and individuals produce successful podcasts leaving a broadcaster with huge resources in their wake?
This amateur-hour period began with the Toy Show The Musical’s failed run. While this mess got plenty of coverage, I personally don’t think the broadcaster was lambasted enough. It’s not the fault of the writers of the musical. They pitched something, wrote something, and got it over the line. The question is, how and why did that even happen? Why on earth did RTÉ embark upon entering a competitive live arena, at scale, in which they have no experience? Why did they book the biggest venue they could — the Convention Centre — that by any stretch of the imagination, just ask your average promoter, could never be filled? Pantomime producers, such as Alan Hughes, were absolutely correct to point out the unfair commercial advantage RTÉ attempted to leverage by blanketing every platform it could in advertising for the show. Even with that unfair commercial advantage, the entire endeavour was a disaster.
The plan is to bring the show back, said Rory Coveney, strategic adviser to the director general, in January. The bright idea? Staging the musical earlier in the year. Right. Because everyone wants to see a show deeply tied to Christmas out of season. It is estimated RTÉ flittered away about €2 million on this project, although the broadcaster will not disclose the actual figure. This is a scandal, and there has been no accountability for it.
Next up, we had the botched appointment of the new director general, a saga characterised by leaks from RTÉ's board to the media where there were clearly individuals with serious grievances about the process. How can you mess up appointing a new boss this badly? What on earth was going on?
Why are the shots being called the wrong ones? Why has all this damage been self-inflicted?
Then, there’s the scramble to recruit a new Late Late Show host, which, at the time of writing, is still to be decided. Why was Ryan Tubridy’s successor not planned for? Why is this process characterised by RTÉ's stars publishing their own statements on their own social media channels saying they don’t want the gig? Is this not completely wild?
Then, there’s this year’s Eurovision flop. Eight out of our nine last entries have failed to qualify. At what point will this unacceptable failure be addressed? RTÉ's process is not fit for purpose and needs to be completely reconfigured. It is underfunded and out of date, and the contest’s Irish fans deserve better. The idea that an act needs to arrive with a fully formed song and performance for a single evening in the Late Late Show studio, and fingers-crossed things will muddle on from there, is nonsense.
And why is RTÉ not producing a succession of hit podcasts that get the nation talking? How can small independent teams and individuals produce successful podcasts leaving a broadcaster with huge resources in their wake? TG4 — a broadcaster with a fraction of RTÉ's resources — is able to announce its intention to produce an Oscar-worthy indigenous film, establish an initiative to develop new cinema, and then realise that moonshot with incredible majesty in the form of An Cailín Ciúin. Where is RTÉ's vision? What is RTÉ's vision? Why the lack of clarity?
I’m not aiming for cheap shots at one of the nation’s favourite punching bags here. We are experiencing a cultural boom in Ireland right now across music, literature, cinema, comedy, podcasting, and Irish television writers making international hits. Why is RTÉ so absent from this picture and this zeitgeist? Why are the shots being called the wrong ones? Why has all this damage been self-inflicted? What on earth is going on at the senior planning and decision-making level in RTÉ?