Larry Bass, CEO of ShinAwil, one of the country’s biggest and busiest independent television production companies, has been issuing dire warnings lately about the bleak future facing cash-strapped RTÉ — and in particular the effect it could have on shows such as Dancing with the Stars, which his company produces.
In various radio and newspaper interviews over the last few weeks, Bass said Dancing with the Stars — the homegrown copy of the BBC’s glitzier Strictly Come Dancing — might not return for a fourth series next year.
“It’s all down to RTÉ,” Bass told The Mirror last week. “At the moment they do not have the budget to bring it back. I just think it’s torture trying to negotiate with an organisation that has no more money left.”
Bass had sounded the same notes in an interview with Newstalk Breakfast a few weeks earlier, saying: “I think the whole of RTÉ is in jeopardy — it’s not just Dancing with the Stars.”
Bass places some of the blame for the funding crisis on those who refuse to buy a TV licence (20pc, apparently), while also calling for an increase in the €160 annual fee.
“If RTÉ isn’t correctly funded, it can’t run the schedules it has been running,” he said. “The licence fee hasn’t been increased for over 15 years.”
I could continue quoting Bass, who went on at length about the high cost of producing Dancing with the Stars — the fees paid to judges and contestants, the need to shell out for transport and accommodation and so on — but there’s no point.
The nub of his argument is straightforward: you can’t produce quality television if the money is not there, ergo you need to jack up the licence fee.
I’d agree with one part of that; making quality television does require an awful lot of money.
Tell me this, though, where is all this quality television? Have I somehow missed something special?
With respect to Bass, whose company has done more to shape RTÉ’s output over the last 20 years than any other production house, Dancing with the Stars is a huge ratings success as well as a significant generator of advertising revenue.
But it’s nobody’s idea of quality television.
Neither is most of what makes up ShinAwil’s back catalogue: Pop Stars, You’re a Star, The Apprentice (for the old TV3), The Voice of Ireland, Dragons’ Den, Masterchef, Say Yes to the Dress, Home of the Year — arguably the most repellent example of property porn on television — and the company’s most recent offering, Marty & Bernard’s Big Adventure.
Many words come to mind when contemplating that lot, but ‘quality’ definitely isn’t one of them.
To be fair, the majority of RTÉ’s output in recent years, whether it comes from ShinAwil, some other company or is an in-house production, leaves a lot to be desired. And not just in the area of light entertainment and lifestyle shows.
The national broadcaster is still citing Love/Hate as the kind of prestigious drama it’s capable of producing — almost five years after the series ended.
Drama output since then has ranged from mediocre (Taken Down) to poor (Clean Break, Acceptable Risk) to laughable (Striking Out).
Meanwhile, comedy seems to be going from bad to worse.
The crisis in RTÉ runs deeper than pockets that aren’t deep enough. The problem is a lack of creativity. It always has been.
Even when RTÉ was knee-deep in advertising revenue during the boom years, there was no appreciable improvement in quality.
“We have to ask ourselves, do we want Irish TV and Irish people on our screens,” said Bass on Newstalk Breakfast, “or are we all happy with looking at UK TV, Netflix or US TV?”
As lawyers say, never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer. Otherwise it might not be the one you were hoping for.
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