Director-General’s Review

Dee Forbes, Director-General

"to provide people in Ireland with an impartial and comprehensive news service, and to entertain, inform and illuminate"

RTÉ, as the national public service media, has unique responsibilities. At the heart of these is the mission to provide people in Ireland with an impartial and comprehensive news service, and to entertain, inform and illuminate. Never was that mission more acute, and more demonstrable, than in 2020.

When the nation came together in crisis, audiences of all ages turned to the national broadcaster for information, advice, entertainment, companionship, diversion and cultural connection. In an era of misinformation and half-truths, millions of Irish citizens relied on public service media more than ever. Independent research showed that 90% of people turned to RTÉ News for vital information in 2020; B&A research confirmed that 4 out of 5 of those surveyed said that they were using RTÉ television or radio services for information, while 76% indicated that they would trust either of those sources above all others.

It is remarkable, in retrospect, that RTÉ maintained full schedules across all services in 2020, and where necessary augmented planned coverage with additional live broadcasts and new programmes. While certain productions had to be suspended or stepped down due to public health restrictions, other dedicated programming was commissioned with exceptionally tight deadlines. Achieving this level of resilience and output under such challenging circumstances was far from easy. I am incredibly proud of the tireless work by our staff and our partners in the independent sector to find solutions and work with creativity, determination and commitment, to ensure that we deliver services for the people of Ireland.

Research conducted at the midpoint of the year confirmed that RTÉ was the most recognised brand for supporting the nation during the Covid-19 crisis. This was thanks to the remarkable agility shown by RTÉ in 2020. From Ireland on Call, RTÉ Home School Hub and Illuminations to the #RTEVirtualParade, Letters from Lockdown, RTÉ Does Comic Relief and a record-breaking Late Late Toy Show, RTÉ delivered for audiences with content that was relevant and indeed a crucial part of our collective journey through a year like no other. From Shine A Light to the many musical performances that were the centrepiece of The Late Late Show, and from the intimate performances recorded in cultural venues across the country as part of the Courage series to the poetry and original writing featured in radio, online and television broadcasts, we saw how important the arts are to our audiences, and the extent to which our audiences relied on their public service media for cohesion and a unifying sense of purpose.

2020 has been another financially challenging year for the organisation. Although RTÉ returned a surplus for the year, revenue fell significantly short of expectations. The welcome additional €9 million public funding, which was announced by Government in December 2019, was entirely absorbed by the decline in licence fee sales, leaving public funding flat year on year. Commercial revenue fell sharply at the onset of the pandemic and while there was some recovery towards the end of the year, it was still €11 million lower than 2019. RTÉ remained resolute in its drive to remove €60m from our operating cost-base by 2023, but the direct impact of Covid-19 restrictions meant that operating costs fell even lower as a result of the curtailed production activity, along with cancelled sporting and other events. The independent sector was directly impacted by this as spend in the sector fell year on year, despite the agility shown by the sector to adapt production models to comply with public health guidelines.

The public in Ireland placed huge trust in RTÉ in 2020. We believe this trust was vindicated in all that we delivered during this time. It is at the heart of our public purpose to reflect Irish life, and Irish lives: when the nation came together in 2020, RTÉ was there. Now we must look at the things we learned about ourselves, about our communities and about the vital role of public service media. These will be the seeds that allow us to flourish in the future. For RTÉ, the achievements of 2020 will fuel the drive to ensure that the funding of public media is put on a firm footing. Despite reporting a surplus in 2020, it is clear that the underlying issues around funding remain acute and unresolved. Future generations deserve a strong, independent Irish voice.

2020 showed us what we can do in a crisis. We must now show what we learned from it.

Dee Forbes

Director-General, RTÉ