Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

Rescuing RTE…

Posted: May 10, 2012 in Arts Politics, Development, TV, Uncategorized
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My love for RTE is difficult to explain. To me, it’s like a child dressing up in mum’s lipstick and heals, trying to be a grown-up organisation. Inevitably, the lipstick ends up all over its face, the heals snap and the child tumbles; it may seem sweet, but it has a lot of growing up to do.

RTE, or to use its full name Raidió Teilifís Éireann (the Irish equivalent of the BBC, for those who are none the wiser), is currently at the lowest point in its fifty-two year history. With staff morale equally low, senior management are attempting a very irrational rationalisation– you know the type– where they change all the things that don’t need changing, while plastering over some suspicious cracks.  RTE is not only suffering from a lack of vision and money, but a serious lack of functional infrastructure. A plan to  completely rebuild the Montrose HQ in Dublin appears to have been shelved ‘in light of the current economic downturn’– and this isn’t the only important plan to have been shelved. RTE also put to bed a subscription channel dubbed ‘RTE International’, that would serve the vast Irish community in Britain, and others around the world. Brand awareness obviously isn’t a priority at RTE.

So how can we help this cranky toddler?  Essentially, we need to encourage it to grow– up and out:

GENERATE & SAVE INCOME:

– Sell international broadcasting rights for programmes such as Fair City.

– Integrate the production arm (vision, post production etc.) and offer a full production service. Target international production companies, market the service alongside the attractive lower corporate tax rate in Ireland.

– Bring more services in house. Create ‘Picture Grading’ and ‘Outside Broadcasting (OB)’ sections.

BROADCASTING QUALITY:

– Remove mid-programme commercial breaks to boost audience retention and thereby sell end-of-programme advertising at higher costs.

RTE is by no means a rich organisation: expansion has been slow and without any real planning and it desperately needs a Director General who will shake the company up, find a real solution to problems rather than merely cutting the payroll. Unlike theatre, music, and film, TV seems incapable of meeting the threats of the digital age. Rather than embrace technology and shake up programming and the commissioning process, broadcasters (RTE in particular) are running the same tired programmes.

Audience development is important not only because it’s vital to the survival of theatre, but also because it completely effects the theatre-going experience.

Last Friday, I went to see Much Ado About Nothing by the RSC  in their shiny new theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I expected, rather naively on reflection, that the audience would reflect the very modern design. Sadly not. It was like waking up in the 50s next to the Jonses and their new Teasmade.  I have absolutely no problem with people of any age or background going to the theatre; what I have a problem with is people who feel they should go to the theatre because that’s what middle class people do. Why bother? Surely just stay at home and watch Coronation Street if that’s what you’d prefer? People need to have a REAL reason to want to go to the theatre– not just because they feel they should.  I’ve noted before the over-funding that this causes in the world of opera and other socially-enhancing-art-forms, and the RSC and National Theatre aren’t exempt from this. Their cuts in the Arts Council RFO portfolio were minimal, and Artistic Director Michael Boyd said that they’d cope… not the reaction of hundreds of other organisations crippled by the cuts.

But, I’m going over old ground… the real point is that the RSC should not be complacent about audience development, and should always seek to find ways of attracting new and future audiences into the theatre, while not forgetting those who have always been loyal. To do this theatre practitioners need to take a step back and look seriously at what they’re competing against, both in terms of successful commercial theatre and other entertainment sources: cinema, TV, games etc.  Admittedly the RSC has taken the brave step of once more delving into the world of musical theatre– presenting Matilda in London– and I suspect that this was largely a well crafted way of generating income, one that should be applauded nonetheless. But, producing musicals will not alone solve the problem of attracting future theatre audiences; I’m referring to the hard to reach audiences, people who have never been into a theatre, people who have always thought that theatre ‘wasn’t for them’. Intelligent producing and clever marketing can help attract these people. Practitioners should look at what makes West End shows appeal: theatre technology, visual effects and the universal language of music. Riverdance, to a cerain extent, achieved this in the 1990s– it put together a series of elements that were perfect for the love of neoliberalism and Postmodernism that we saw in the 90s. Which brings me to my final and most important point: Reinvention (with a capital R). I don’t believe that theatre should be created in the style of a long dead playwright. Each generation should endeavour to reinvent their theatre environment in a continual cycle of progression and modernisation; just as technology and time never stand still neither should theatre.

I once attended a meeting with a number of regional arts practitioners in the UK, I remember one lady saying ‘we need to move away from our preoccupation with infrastructure’, that’s all well and good, but first of all you need to have the infrastructure to move away from. A theatre isn’t just a place to perform, it’s a cultural focus point, a point of contact between artists and the community in which they work and live.

Despite having a culture of culture, Ireland has a distinct lack of performing arts infrastructure. Aside from the recently built Grand Canal Theatre, there are few venues in Ireland that can accommodate large scale productions. Even the two big producing houses in Dublin (The Abbey and The Gate) are tired venues, in desperate need of a complete technical update. So out of the five big theatres in Dublin only the Grand Canal Theatre offers a great deal of potential to producers of large scale theatre. If Ireland is to compete with Britain in terms of cultural tourism, then a great deal of investment needs to be put in to building new venues and redeveloping existing venues across the country. I was very surprised to discover that even Galway doesn’t have a large theatre with a fly tower and large amounts of wing space.

The last tourism and culture minister said that Ireland needs a ‘broadway’… I’d like to contradict that, Ireland needs a ‘West End’. But further than that it needs infrastructure in the regions, major theatres in every gateway city in the country. Investment into the cultural economy pays dividends not only in money generated by tourism, but in the community enrichment that happens as a direct result of culture and creativity. The world knows that Ireland is culturally rich, isn’t it time that the full potential of this was realised?

I don’t deny the fact that Labour were most definitely not without fault, however they were strong advocates of culture and the intrinsic value that it has. David Cameron’s ‘cool conservativism’ doesn’t fool anyone, and I particularly enjoyed the Banksy defaced billboards that demonstrated this fact. Near where I lived the graffiti wasn’t so clever, a simple ‘Fuck off Torys’ sprayed over the billboard delivered the message loudly and clearly. Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt (or as BBC presenter Jeremy Naughtie inadvertantly called him: ‘Jeremy Cunt) jumped straight into his new position in goverment wielding the hatchet, abolishing the UK Film Council and cutting Arts Council England’s already cut to the bone, housekeeping budget by a further 50%. The result of this is being felt already with one County Arts Officer telling me ‘[ACE] literally can’t afford to show an interest anymore’. It’s very easy to say ‘we’re cutting administration money’, but surely they understand that the Arts Council doesn’t run itself, and anyone who’s completed an Arts Council Application form as I have, will know just how much information there is to plod through PER APPLICATION? The very depressing fact is that that is exactly what the average Tory party member does think. I worked for an high brow arts festival for years and at one strategic development meeting the chairman (a Tory party member) turned to the Arts Council Officer running the meeting and said ‘Is this your job?’ To which the lady replied ‘yes’, to which he responded ‘You mean somebody pays you to do what you do?’

Don’t act surprised. The Conservative view of Culture is of something that’s ‘nice to have’, it’s an occasion or event that’s used to further social status. Maybe this is a little unfair, but for years quality was judged in output only, not in the experience gained for participants and workers involved, not to mention the wider community enrichment that the arts bring. An excellent example of this (and one of my favourites) is the amount of money that Opera North receives between 2008-2012, just over £38m. I fail to see how this is true value for money (value for money being one of many assessment criteria used by ACE). Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s an opera singer, and obviously I don’t want to threaten his employment in any way at all, but really, £38m! The Royal Opera House in London over the same period receives… wait for it… just under £110m. It’s like ACE and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have forgotten that without grass roots arts projects, youth theatres, theatre in education departments, in the future there will be no performers, no artists, no musicians of the standard that there are today. I noticed that Julie Walters and a number of others wrote a letter to the Observer last Sunday with a similar message.

Since London won the Olympic bid (and I say London because really where else in the UK is benefiting from the Olympics?), more and more money has been channeled out of the arts and into sport. I love sport, I do, but where is the value for money in this!? And we’re promised that as of 2012 Lottery money will be returned to the Arts. But in these past few years of economical drought for grass roots/ middle of the road arts, how many organisations will have gone, and gone for good?