Bob Collins, former Director General of RTÉ was appointed the role of Chairman of the new Broadcasting Authority of Ireland body in September 2009. IFTN spoke with the BAI chairman about settling into his new role and the negotiations surrounding digital terrestrial television in Ireland from which Easy TV recently withdrew.
The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) was established on October 1st, 2009 following the enactment of the Broadcasting Act 2009. The BAI aims to ensure that the number and categories of broadcasting services made available in Ireland best serve the needs of the people. The organisation also looks to provide for open and pluralistic services which follow consitiutional values.
One of the BAI’s roles is to oversee the establishment of Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) in Ireland. DTT is a new Irish television platform which will replace the current analogue terrestrial network used by RTÉ, TG4 and TV3. The European Union (EU) has agreed among its member states that the transmission of analogue television services will cease around 2015. This process is known as ‘analogue switch off’ or ASO and from that point onwards, television will no longer be available through analogue means. The date for ASO in Ireland will be determined by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, as provided for under the Broadcasting Act, 2009. The Broadcasting Act of 2009 gave the BAI responsibility for licensing DTT multiplex operators. The aim is to ensure the continued availability of a diversity of services and programming content in a digital era.
Following initial talks with Boxer the BCI entered into contract negotiations with the second placed applicant, OneVision in May 2009. That consortium was unable to conclude a contract with RTÉ NL, to the satisfaction of both parties, for the provision of transmission services. The BAI withdrew from contract negotiations with the consortium in April 2010. The contracts were then offered to the third placed applicant, Easy TV, in May 2010.
On Tuesday, May 18th the BAI was advised by the Easy TV consortium that it had decided to decline the BAI’s offer to pursue negotiations for the provision of three Commercial DTT Multiplex Contracts. The withdrawal of the Easy TV consortium now brings the current DTT licensing process to a conclusion. The matter will be considered by the Authority at its next meeting on 31st May. Further information will be made available in due course following that meeting.
IFTN spoke with Bob Collins about how his team was settling into their BAI roles and the ongoing DTT talks:
IFTN: Why was it decided to amalgamate the duties of the BCI with those of the Complaints Commission and the broadcasting authorities of both RTÉ and Teilifis na Gaeilge?
Bob Collins (BC): I think the step was taken because there had been a perceived need, for a number of years, to streamline the way in which broadcasting regulation operated in Ireland. Prior to that there had been the RTÉ Authority acting as the Regulator for RTÉ and the BCI for the commercial sector, with the BCI having some areas of responsibility in terms of codes about advertising and so on that had an impact on RTÉ as well.
In addition to that there were complaints about the Complaints Commission which had been in existence in one form or another for about 30 years. And also, certain individuals were looking for opportunities to redress programmes by any broadcaster who contravened the law or a code that had been issued in accordance with the law. On top of that there was European Union, European Commission consideration of issues in relation to funding of broadcasting and the regulation of broadcasting in the context of a number of complaints that had been made and also in relation to European practice generally.
IFTN: Has the correlation of all of these bodies proved problematic at all?
BC: I don’t think so. Like everything else it is work in progress because it is just over six months since the legislation came into effect in the beginning of October last year.
That said, all of the staff of the BCI became the staff of the BAI so there is a measure of continuity in that respect. One of the issues that has changed is the shape or the architecture of the Authority. There is an Authority and there are two statutory committees, one in respect of compliance which subsumes the work of the BCC, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
IFTN: You were Director General of RTÉ for six years, do you think this has shaped the way you approach your role as Chair of the BAI?
BC: I think it is useful to have some understanding of the way broadcasting operates in Ireland. However, it’s more than six years since I left RTÉ and a great deal has changed in that period so there is a degree of re-acquainting myself with the issues that arise – but there is no doubt that it is an advantage that I have had some engagement.
Another part of the process is seriously engaging with independent producers, which leads to a development of a comparable understanding of the world in which commercial broadcasters operate. One of the realities for everybody is that economic circumstances have become dramatically different from what they were a few short years ago and that’s clearly the same for broadcasters. So one of the challenges for the Authority is to ensure that the regulatory role of the Authority is not just a fair weather friend, that it doesn’t only operate when times are good, because it’s actually when times are more difficult that audiences perhaps need the reassurance that a regulatory framework offers them.
IFTN: Moving on to the regulation of pay and digital TV – can you give us some background as to the ongoing talks?
BC: At the moment people can choose to access programming by satellite - if you are in an area that is cabled you can choose to have your programmes through cable - but otherwise anywhere you are in the country you can receive your television from terrestrial services – your aerial on your chimney or on the back of your television set receiving signals from a transmitter that is on a mountain top or somewhere else. And the purpose of the current debate is to replace that analog system, which will switch off before the end of 2012, with a digital system that will still operate on a terrestrial basis i.e. from fixed transmitters, as the third leg of the stool by which television programmes are distributed.
Now what is happening is that there have been open discussions about awarding a contract to deliver the content on these new DTT multiplexes, as they are called, groups of channels - a facility that will enable the transmission of a range of programmes.
IFTN: The talks have been going on for months, why is it proving so problematic to reach a decision between the groups?
BC: Well Boxer took a decision to withdraw based principally on their view of the economic environment and the changes that were taking place in the market. I think with digital terrestrial television there was always a challenge implicit in it, because of the extent to which Ireland was already a multi-channel environment and there was already significant penetration by other providers of television services, distributors of television services. The Government decided that there should be a digital terrestrial television project or service available to audiences and so the BCI began the process of awarding licences back in ’08.
IFTN: And this has been going on a long time.
BC: It has and I have said before that my patience and that of the Authority was wearing, had worn.
IFTN: And if these talks don’t work out is this something that really could go on and on?
BC: Well nothing goes on and on and on because nature provides its own limits in any event.
For more information about the work of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland visit www.bai.ie.