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Tale of two TV licence fees as Irish charge enters 17th year unchanged

BBC fee will increase by 6.6% next month - and even that rise is not enough to avoid substantial cutbacks

Tim Davie’s speech to the Royal Television Society (RTS) was a sobering one, not least from an Irish perspective. The BBC director general outlined how below-inflationary settlements with successive UK governments have “chipped away at our income over many years” and “put serious pressure on our finances”, prompting swingeing cuts across its output. He is open to a more “progressive” form of funding, he indicated.

In the meantime, the annual UK television licence fee will climb 6.6 per cent to £169.50 (€197.80) next month. This £10.50 (€12.49) increase caused consternation at the BBC when it was announced in December because it was based on last September’s annual rate of inflation, rather than the average annualised inflation figure over the previous 12 months, which would have triggered a 9 per cent rise.

The lower-than-expected increase also comes on the back of a 30 per cent cut in real terms between 2010 and 2020 “and a tough couple of years of flat funding”, Davie noted. He described the decision of Westminster to strip money from the BBC during this period of digital transition as “particularly short-sighted” and the reason why more than 1,000 hours of content, “including many loved programme titles”, have been cut.

Still, despite the severity of the threat to BBC funding – screenwriter and Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies believes the end of the BBC “is undoubtedly on its way in some shape or form” – many people working within the Irish broadcasting industry will look upon its predicament with some envy.

The Irish television licence fee has not changed in 16 years. The last rise came in January 2008 when it went up by €2 to its current rate of €160. It is unofficially subject to a permanent freeze. That the fee continues to exist at all is the product of political inertia. It is, after all, easier to complain that the RTÉ schedules are full of repeats than it is to reform the mechanism for funding public service media.

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But if even the BBC – with its global brand and more favourable economies of scale – is worried about its survival, and people like Tim Davie are asking whether Britain should just accept that it is “inevitable that our media sector will become a smaller version of America”, what hope does Ireland have?

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