There have been many casualties of the proliferation of online entertainment. You need look no further for evidence of this than the gadget shop or sushi bar that used to be your local XtraVision. Rather than paying a fiver to rent a movie for the night, you can now pay eight or nine euro a month to Mr Netflix and get access to more content than you could watch in a hundred lifetimes, without ever having to leave the comfort of your couch. You can even get it all for free off a dodgy website, if you’re willing to risk malware entering your computer and spending the contents of your bank account on nuclear warheads.
This is all to be expected; inevitable symptoms of progress which we cannot impede and therefore should not feel remorseful about. Simply put, it is what it is. There is, however, one pesky little anachronism that shows no sign of being swept away by the rising tide of modernisation; the television license.
Any Irish household in possession of a “television set” is required to pay an annual fee of €160, the bulk of which, we are told, is used to fund RTE, our state broadcaster. You might wonder why it is that RTE requires such a generous donation to keep its head above water when there are many, many other stations that manage this feat by selling advertisements. The website of An Post (who, for some reason, are tasked with the enforcement of the charge) tells us that “the moments we love are made possible by the License Fee.” Surely, however, if we loved them that much, enough of us would watch them that the advertising rights on them would be worth something? Evidently not.
There are those who will say, of course, that our national broadcaster is representative of our society and thus should not be relying on the tackiness of consumer capitalism to turn a profit. This is all well and good in theory, but in real terms it is profoundly undemocratic. Who exactly was it that decided that €160 was a reasonable price to pay just for the decorum of keeping the Cillit Bang man off our screens during the break from Fair City? I’m willing to bet that most people wouldn’t object too strongly to a few more ads if it cost them less.
That aside, let us get back to the question of value for money. What are all these loveable moments for which we pay so dearly? Our very occasional sporting triumphs, I suppose, but most of those are quite capably covered by private channels anyway. Once upon a time a case could have been made for the news, but these days anything that’s even remotely worth knowing about is beamed into our pockets 24 hours a day, so that’s out too. This applies equally to political and social commentary. Years ago, we relied on RTE to keep a close enough eye on things to ensure that illegitimate children weren’t being farmed by nuns and sold, or that politicians weren’t spending all our money on tailored shirts. The dawn of the information age has left us with the ability to take care of all that ourselves.
Because, however, it is sheltered from the unforgiving glare of free-market economics, state-sponsored broadcasting refuses to shrivel up and die like other outdated institutions have. The result is an inefficient, slightly irritating and outrageously expensive thorn in the side of our society. In an age where homelessness is rampant and nobody can afford to pay rent, we are all still held to ransom to ensure that the constant stream of largely unwatchable content produced by RTE (and, lest we forget, TG4) remains uninterrupted.
Plainly, something must be done. While it might be excessive to suggest doing away with it altogether, extensive reform is necessary. We could start by calling it a “tax” instead of a license, and just attaching it to the price of a television when it’s purchased (you know, like they do with almost every other commodity known to man?). This would reduce evasion rates (which are high) to exactly zero, and eliminate the requirement for a glorified postman to knock on every door in the country in pursuit of dodgers.
Unfortunately, fat would remain to be trimmed. Nationwide would surely have to go. As would Ear to the Ground, Today with Maura and Daithi, and all the other ones that are almost certainly never watched by anyone. The Late Late Show would probably have to remain due to its status as a cultural monument, but perhaps instead of paying Ryan Tubridy more money than the Taoiseach they could hire people to operate behind the scenes and actually make it engaging and informative, or at least funny. Whoever is behind Graham Norton’s show would do just fine.
It is highly improbable that any of this will come to pass, of course. Such a lucrative cash cow isn’t likely to be sacrificed without significant disapproval from the public, and that is something that the TV license miraculously continues to escape. That is, of course, until they suggest applying it to our smartphones.