Nov 26, 2023

The RTÉ Scandal in Context: Why Are There No Quality Irish Shows?

Sarah Murnane explores the recent RTÉ scandal and the broadcaster's lacklustre output

Sarah MurnaneFilm and TV Editor

This summer, the Irish media had a scandal. A scandal! What fun! As it unfolded, the scandal was covered so much that I got scandal fatigue. You could not get away from it. The month of June turned into Irish Watergate. Rightly so. It was revealed in June this year that RTÉ had paid Ryan Tubridy over €340,000 more than contracted between 2017 and 2022. Alongside this, numerous other payments were discovered that the company were covering for other employees, such as €138,000 in tickets to rugby matches and, my personal favourite, €5,000 on pairs of flip flops for a summer party. Everyone knows that Irish people only get two weeks of summer a year, so honestly I commend them for wanting to make the most of it. 

It is still possible to find videos of groups of people in the pub eagerly awaiting Ryan Tubridy’s statements. My grandparents rang me at least twenty times that week to talk about it. The scandal seems to have left an impression on Ireland, and it called into question the use and future plans of RTÉ. It is simply a question of value and, right now it seems that there is little value being placed on the development of Irish film and TV. This year RTÉ reported a deficit of €21 million. Ouch. This is attributed to a fall in TV licence payments since the scandal. This all begs the question, what do we want to see from RTÉ? 

The state of Irish television right now is poor. RTÉ is severely lacking in content at the moment and has been for some time. There are currently thirteen shows on air contributed to by RTÉ. Breaking this down, over half are news-related with five news shows and three covering current affairs. There are only two traditional scripted programmes: Fair City and Mrs Brown’s Boys. However, Mrs Brown’s Boys is made in partnership with the BBC. There are also no shows which were started past 2011. In terms of films, the projects are much more exciting. RTÉ has contributed to and produced some incredible pictures, including but not limited to The Last of the High Kings (1996), Brooklyn (2015) and The Delinquent Season (2018). Often RTÉ is not the main contributor, but they are involved in the production.


I think what makes this so disappointing is that when you look across the pond, there is the BBC. It seems unfair to compare the two, yet the comparison cannot be helped. Obviously, the BBC receives substantially more funding than RTÉ every year and is a larger operation overall. But, as the BBC produces some of the decade’s most beloved shows, it seems that RTÉ is falling further and further behind. Putting my Irish pride aside, it is frustrating that RTÉ appears to put little effort into expanding its influence creatively in Ireland. Particularly for young people. News and current affairs are great, but there is nothing made for adults or young adults. Especially when events like the scandal show the organisation seems happy enough to spend money, as long as it’s not anything useful.   

The main argument is of course that RTÉ do not have the budget. This is broadly true. For context, it cost €3 million to make one episode of Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson, Hattie Macdonald, 2020). Even with the ‘slush fund’ money, RTÉ would not come close to producing those kinds of numbers. Still, it feels like a shame that RTÉ does not even contribute. Programmes such as The Late Late Show are staples of Irish television, but the format or content has not been updated for so long. However, it is cheap to work off of a table and a studio. It is only the guests and the presenter that make up the real cost. Alongside this, viewership is generally high, with almost 450,000 views weekly. This has dwindled slightly in recent months post-scandal, with numbers dropping steadily, but the format remains appealing. 

In recent months, it seems that the scandal has struck a chord with the government. They have announced €56 million in funding to be given to RTÉ in aid of their effort “to rebuild trust and confidence of the Irish public”. Taking one step further, only €40 million will be given initially and, depending on the progress RTÉ makes, the final €16 million payment will be made in the second half of the year. Surely with this amount of money, they must be able to make something. Anything! 

During the production of Normal People, RTÉ did face some interrogation of why they did not contribute to the making of the show. One of the directors, Lenny Abrahamson, is quoted stating that the reason they approached the BBC is because the funding at RTÉ is “chronic”. As mentioned, and oft-touted by the RTÉ, Normal People took 3 million euros to make per episode. This is partly reasonable – RTÉ did not have that kind of money, but now they do have some. While they may not be at Normal People heights yet, they could, in theory, comfortably produce some television with a budget of €56 million. Instead of paying a presenter half a million euros a year under the table. But perhaps I’m just a stickler for the rules. Not everything has to be a high-budget production, it just has to be entertaining. 

The press release from the government ended with a particularly ironic statement from Catherine Martin TD, which implores people to please “pay their TV Licence fee”. A quote so beautifully simple that it makes my point for me. While the government and RTÉ may acknowledge the scandal and their failure in developing the organisation, they still want you to give them your money. That should tell you all you need to know about their priorities. 

The Irish media is always the same. There is a theme of disinterest in modernisation and development that runs through these organisations. They have to be pushed, prodded and forced to do it. Even if RTÉ cannot afford to produce television on its own, it could start contributing to projects and introducing new programming to begin to appeal to more of the population. It is easy to rely on what has come before, but with the money RTÉ will get next year, it is possible to start thinking bigger.

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