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We are witnessing the death throes of RTÉ. I say this with a heavy heart

David McWilliams: Spend some time with younger people and evidence of the dopamine culture of scrolling, swiping and clicking is everywhere

RTÉ is going out of business.

Businesses go bust all the time. Technology can blindside a legacy business, or bad management, but sometimes it’s just that the world moves on. In the case of RTÉ, it’s probably a bit of all three. The young have switched off and are unlikely to come back. I have never seen my children tune into RTÉ. Their friends are the same. Whereas my mother is a devotee, and I am agnostic, maybe catching a bit of current affairs, the kids are gone.

There in three generations of the one family is the story of a faltering corporation. I say this with a heavy heart. I’ve worked with RTÉ on many occasions, and have huge admiration for many of the staff.

When you stand back from the theatrics of the past weeks, we are witnessing the death throes of an organisation. While the State can compel people to subsidise RTÉ, even jailing folk who don’t pay their TV licence, this smacks of Stalinism and doesn’t feel like a long-term strategy. People’s listening and watching habits have changed and, like the demise of the compact disc in the face of music streaming, no amount of political special pleading is going to change this. We may worry about these trends, but they are the facts.


What is happening in the media-information-persuasion-entertainment business?

In the UK, the share of those aged 18-24 accessing online news directly from a news site or app has more than halved from 53 per cent in 2015 to just 24 per cent last year

RTÉ, like all broadcasters, is in the business of grabbing people’s attention and time, and here the global trends are unambiguous. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report, a joint project from Reuters and the University of Oxford, reliant on YouGov polling data across the globe, throws up some fascinating developments. The 2023 report suggests that what they term, “social natives” (those growing up in the era of social media) are increasingly less likely to go directly to a news site or app for news and instead rely on social media.

In the UK, the share of those aged 18-24 accessing online news directly from a news site or app has more than halved, from 53 per cent in 2015 to just 24 per cent last year. The corresponding figure for those aged over 35 has remained flat at around 52 per cent. Within social networks, we’ve seen a shift towards Instagram and TikTok. The likes of Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) are still more likely to carry news from more mainstream news providers, whereas Instagram, TikTok and the like are much more dominated – worryingly – by prominent personalities or influencers.

In Ireland, the decline of TV as a news source has accelerated over the past eight years. In 2015, 76 per cent of respondents consumed TV news. This fell to 58 per cent by 2023. One winner in the current affairs or information business has been podcasting. This comes from the fact that people now want to curate or personalise their own media, and are not prepared to simply take a suite of programmes devised by some remote TV or radio scheduler. Today, 14 per cent of Irish people listen to podcasts and they tend to be younger, educated and richer than those who don’t – the sweet spot for advertisers. Who knows what tomorrow might hold, but it is clear that the millennials and Gen Zs have switched.

What about Generation Alpha, those born from 2010 into a world of on-demand media and streaming services? These youngsters have access to an array of content from YouTube to Netflix, and when they decide they like something, they can watch that instead of channel-surfing. And every time they watch something, the YouTube algorithm is watching them, learning what they find most engaging and bombarding them with similar content to keep them addicted.

Everywhere you look, you see people on their screens and you can imagine these little dopamine hits going off in their heads as they scroll, digest, discard, scroll again, addicted to the buzz of the hit

And addicted is the right word, because we are witnessing a large shift in our popular culture which will have profound consequences for society. We are moving to a dopamine culture, where all information – be it politics, sport, journalism, music, even relationships – is repackaged into bite-sized, immediate hits of dopamine.

“Dopamine culture” is a term coined by Ted Gioia, an American music historian and critic. (If you don’t know him, you should.) Gioia observes a culture which has moved because of technology. In music we have moved from albums to TikToks; in journalism from newspapers to scrolling; in entertainment from cinema to short reels of video; in sport from playing a match to gambling on it; and in relationships from marriage and commitment to swiping on an app.

Everywhere you look you see people on their screens, and you can imagine these little dopamine hits going off in their heads as they scroll, digest, discard and scroll again, addicted to the buzz of the hit. And like all addictions, the buzz wears off increasingly quickly, demanding more of the drug, leading to generations of people who are scrolling, swiping and driven to distraction by relentless digital interruption. This is the TikTokisation of culture and it is upon us. Talk to anyone in the music industry, for example, and they will tell you that if a song doesn’t grab the distracted listener within the first 20 seconds it will be discarded.

How can you make art in such a world?

Entertainment is art made easy, but art is challenging, difficult to make and, to appreciate, requiring effort which is ultimately rewarding. Political analysis, too, requires commitment, time and effort at understanding – as does understanding the economy and its place in the society. But if everything is speeded up, made instantly digestible, where do we get knowledge, the product of application and serious contemplation?

In my career I’ve experienced this shift. In the old days, when I presented current affairs programmes, economics was seen as hard, stuffy and boring. Radio and TV producers were obsessed with turning economics into entertainment, to keep people interested. This required a certain type of mind, turn of phrase and editing style.

In recent years the entertainment motive has been replaced by distraction and relentless output, be it on X or Facebook: live social media clips, where content is shortened, simplified, repackaged, and repeated. The aim is to keep people distracted, swiping and scrolling on platforms that require less and less individual application. And these platforms are being replaced by even more attention-grabbing clickbait such as TikTok, where the aim isn’t so much constant distraction but addiction to more dopamine hits.

This is the new warp-speed world that RTÉ is operating in, and the challenges it faces are those that come when one world collides with another. I have a lot of sympathy with those who argue that we need to slow down, but it’s hard to see that happening. Spend some time with younger people and the evidence of dopamine culture is everywhere. The implication, for truth, for politics, and for reasoned analysis, is obvious.

The funny thing about RTÉ is that when it’s gone we might miss it.