Dee Forbes, Director General of RTÉ, talks to Vanessa O’Connor, EBU Director of Member Relations & Communications.
RTÉ, as the national public service media, has a clear 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.
The big impact was, in a sense, a renewal of our relationship with the audience. When the nation came together in crisis, it turned to RTÉ. 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 else.
Yes, there were financial impacts early in the pandemic. And yes, we encountered massive operational challenges. We overcame and met these challenges to a large extent. What’s left, in a final analysis, is a renewed vision for what public media can and should be, and a clearer sense of what the audience needs, not just in crisis, but in more normal times too. I said before that the pandemic was like a big re-set, and none more-so than for public service media and for RTÉ.
It is remarkable, in retrospect, how RTÉ maintained full schedules across all services in 2020. Where necessary, we augmented planned coverage with additional live broadcasts and new programmes. Achieving this level of resilience and output under such challenging circumstances was far from easy, but thanks to the flexibility and innovative approach of our staff, as well as our partners in the independent sector, solutions were found, and service was upheld.
So, in terms of decision-making and setting priorities, the pandemic clarified – and continues to clarify – how important it is that the audience is at the centre of every decision, that the audience is the priority. And the independent sector rose to that challenge too – innovating content in the midst of a pandemic is not easy, but that’s what we did with some truly remarkable output. When you layer on the huge range of initiatives to support SMEs, artists, venues, and cultural organizations – you get a sense that the pandemic not only provided problems, it provided opportunities.
And across our output, RTÉ – with the people of Ireland – raised over €20m for charities in 2020. Those funds were raised on the back of some massive productions – ambitious, large-scale, innovative. I think the pandemic showed us in no uncertain terms the scale of what we could achieve, and what you can achieve when you think openly, act decisively, and deliver quickly.
I hear people all over RTÉ say to me, we’re talking now more than we ever have. There are teams that might have struggled to have a weekly meeting who are now meeting remotely every day. I meet with the broader editorial, content, news, operations and other support teams twice a week. What you lose in terms of the physical meetings you gain I think in other ways. I’m talking to more people every day now than before - relationships are stronger, and from that, decisions are quicker, and better.
It has been a very important time to lead with empathy and flexibility to our staff who are dealing with many complex issues while also being asked to work. Home schooling, caring for parents, working remotely, dealing with illness and loss, have all become considerations for so many and at all times we have worked with staff to provide the supports and tools necessary to help though this time.
I think we’ve all learned that maintaining team spirit and cohesion is possible during such a crisis, and I’ve seen first hand how the best-performing teams are the teams that talk and interact fluidly and regularly every day. Building and maintaining the systems that allow that, and empowering people to take control and responsibility for themselves and their teams, has shown us all that how well we work defines the quality of what we make. I think if there’s one thing we take with us out of this pandemic, it’s that.
Without a doubt. We are doing things now that we could scarcely have imagined a year ago. Operationally we have seen many changes in production processes and how we work, and how we can use technology. Editorially, we’ve seen that you can maintain quality while delivering at pace. With agility comes energy, and that energy drives further agility.
Research conducted at the mid-point of the year confirmed that RTÉ was the most recognised brand for supporting the nation during the Covid-19 crisis - From Ireland on Call, RTÉ Home School Hub and Illuminations to the #RTEVirtualParde, 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.
We saw, for example, how important the arts are to our audience, and the extent to which our audiences relied on their public service media for cohesion and a unifying sense of purpose. Without doubt that provides a compelling blueprint for RTÉ and for public media as we emerge from the pandemic. Maintaining that sense of community and connection, innovation and relevance are the driving forces now.
Like so many other public service media organizations, financing and a sustainable future is a constant theme and continues through this year with the Future of Media Commission established by government to recommend on that very subject later this year. In the meantime we must do what we can to stabilise the organisation financially and structurally. We have a focus on growing and diversifying commercial revenue, stabilising and growing public funding, and saving operating costs. I believe that if we act now, and make the right decisions together, we can stabilise RTÉ financially within two years.
The public in Ireland place huge trust in RTÉ. We believe this trust was vindicated in all that we delivered during the pandemic. 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. The achievements of 2020 must fuel the drive to ensure that the funding of public media is put on a firm footing. 2020 showed us what we can do in a crisis. We must now show what we learned from it.