Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000

Jan Čulík Č U L Í K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
A new Chief Executive of Czech Television: The same changes, but softly, softly!!

Jan Čulík

Although the Council for Czech Television included Kamil Čermák, an executive director of Czech Telecom and a highly controversial candidate in the final shortlist of two on the evening of Wednesday 26th January 2000, it eventually appointed Dušan Chmelíček, the head of Czech Television's legal department and a "Puchalský" man. As we have reported, Britské listy had revealed that in 1994-1995, Kamil Čermák, as spokesperson for Czech Trade and Industry Secretary Vladimír Dlouhý, went to absurd lengths to prevent an interview on aspects of the Škoda-Volkswagen deal from taking place, using evasions and lies in the process. (In Real Audio here).

In addition, on the day of the interviews for the post of Czech Television's Chief Executive, Radio Prague discovered that Kamil Čermák, apparently already sure of the appointment, had visited both Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, the respective heads of the Czech Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Social Demoratic Party (ČSSD), in order to canvass their support. The Britské listy exposure and the Radio Prague report together seem to have shattered Čermák's chances of being appointed. No matter how beholden to the political parties represented in the Czech Parliament the Council for Czech Television might be, it could not afford to be directly associated with a candidate who openly canvasses party political support for his candidature. So they appointed Dušan Chmelíček. The worrying thing is that the Parliamentary Media Commission seems dissatisfied with this choice and apparently wants directly to meddle with the role of Czech TV. The Media Commission is due to discuss the situation at Czech TV again within the next fortnight. Kateřina Dostalová, an MP for the Civic Democratic Party wants to force the resignation of the Council for Czech Television." [The appointment of Chmelíček] is a continuation of the current state of affairs," she complained to the Czech News Agency.

Since being appointed, Chmelíček has made two radically differing impressions on the public. His public appearances has so far been boring, without sparkle and full of verbose banality. In spite of problems with the quality of news and current affairs on Czech TV and the structure of the news and current affairs department, Chmelíček has said that Zdeněk Šámal, the head of news and current affairs, is the right man for the job. On Czech TV's current affairs programme Twenty-One Hours on 23rd January, Chmelíček spoke vaguely and evasively about the need to strengthen the public service character of Czech Television. Observers are disappointed, but it may be that Chmelíček has assumed the role of a diplomat and is fudging the issues deliberately. So far, anyone who has tried to tackle problems at Czech Television, has been kicked out rather quickly.

Will Chmelíček's proposals for improvement survive?

In spite of the banalites which Chmelíček has been saying in the Czech media over the past few days, he has published in Britské listy a rather rational and well-argued project for the further development of Czech Television, on the basis of which he was appointed to the post of Chief Executive. This openness is praiseworthy. The former Czech TV Chief Executive kept his own project in secret. (Incidentally, the second of the three shortlisted candidates, Petr Sladeček, has also published his interesting project for the future of Czech Television in Britské listy).

As a typical lawyer-diplomat, Chmelíček first praises all the successes, achieved by Czech Television to date, in his project. He speaks clearly, logically and sensibly: not all mistakes made in Czech Television over the past two years were Jakub Puchalský's fault and the fault of his "non-communicativeness". (Puchalský rarely spoke openly about what he was doing at Czech TV. He was not fully sure of himself and was afraid that critics might cast doubt on what he was saying, so he kept his mouth shut). In spite of his evasions in Twenty-One Hours, in the project Chmelíček says clearly that "it is necessary to strengthen the independence, the stature and the prestige of Czech television as a public service institution."

In reaction to a highly centralised managing system in Czechoslovak television under Communism, says Chmelíček in the project, a loose "producers' system" has come into being in Czech TV especially since 1992, a flat, non-hierarchical structure. This may be modern and beneficial, but the structure of the producers' system in Czech TV was too informal. The producers worked on the basis of unwritten rules and regulations - there were no official guidelines and internal relations within Czech TV have not been formally defined. Britské listy has been writing about this for the past two years, maybe a little more brutally: informal management structures, created on the bases of private personal relations, makes decisions at Czech Television. People who are deciding are not bearing any responsibility for their decisionmaking. Chmelíček wants to strengthen the existing producers' system, but he wants to set it in a fixed formal framework, independent of individuals and personal relations. Decision-making processes must be accountable. In the project, Chmelíček says openly: "It must be said clearly that in Czech Television it is impossible to go back before April 1998 (when Puchalský was appointed) - back to untransparent decision-making on the basis on internal informal customs, and to repeated ad hoc decision-making even in the most important questions". Chmelíček argues that in 1992 - 1997, Czech Television has undoubtedly achieved much success, but in the forthcoming era of fast technological change Czech TV will not survive with its antiquated system of untransparent decision making for which nobody is accountable.

News and current affairs - a perennial problem

Perhaps the most important area of broadcasting in a public service television station is news and current affairs. Even here Chmelíček finds the same mistakes as in the other parts of Czech Television. It is interesting that in an attempt to improve the situation, Chmelíček directly uses the reform project of Ivan Kytka, who was forced out of his post of Chief of News and Current Affairs within a mere seven weeks in the spring of 1998. Kytka, it would seem, was on the right track. Without his reforms of the news and current affairs department, Czech TV will not be able to enter the modern era. It is interesting that also the second applicant for the post of Chief Executive of Czech TV, Petr Sladeček, has directly based his project on Kytka's ideas. It is perhaps logical because the structures which Kytka tried to introduce into Czech Television, seem to be part and parcel of any rational structures of a modern television station. In the spring of 1998, Kytka tried to set up independent production and editorial teams for each of the ten or eleven news and current affairs programmes, broadcast on Czech TV. In an interview for Britské listy, published on 2nd September 1998, he said:

I wanted to abolish the division of the News and Current Affairs Department into a Domestic Section and a Foreign Section. Instead, I wanted to divide it into individual editorial and production teams catering for individual programmes, the way it is usual in British television and I am sure in many other countries of the world. The problem of the News and Current Affairs Department in Czech TV is that about ten or eleven news and current affairs programmes are sloshing about. They are produced at random by various editors, by haphazardly formed teams of journalists, often depending on who has time and feels like doing it. I wanted to create complete editorial and production teams for each individual programme. That was the main change which I wanted to implement." Before being kicked out in May 1998, Kytka divided the Department into four editorial teams. He also said in the interview for Britské listy: "In many aspects, decision making in Czech TV was twin-track or even treble-track. The heads of the Domestic and Foreign Sections decided the contents of the programmes, but they were not accountable for what was actually broadcast.

Compare Kytka's words to Dusan Chmelíček's project: "In the current structures in the News and Current Affairs Department nothing forces the Editor-in-Chief further to structure his Department and to transfer accountability for broadcast programmes to lower levels of management. The individual news and current affairs programmes do not have permanent editors-in-chief. The presenters of major news programmes work at other times, when they do not present these programmes, elsewhere as reporters. Since the relations of the members of the department to the individual programmes are so loose, and nobody knows in which programme he or she will be "standing in" next week, it can hardly be expected that the programmes would differ significantly from one another. Moreover, the editors of individual programmes take turns each week so it is very difficult to preserve continuty in the agenda of the individual programmes."

Chmelíček's project shows that the situation has remained exactly the same as it was at the end of March 1998, on departure of the former Chief Executive Ivo Mathé. Zdeněk Šámal, the current Head of News and Current Affairs Department, and Jakub Puchalský, the outgoing Chief Executive said in the summer of 1998 that they wanted to continue with Kytka's reforms even after Kytka's departure. What have they been doing at Czech TV for the past two years, since now, after Puchalský's departure, Chmelíček is saying that the situation has not changed one jot? And how does it tally with Chmelíček's diplomatic assertion that Zdeněk Šámal is the right man to head the News and Current Affairs Department?

The problem is that the moment someone tries the modernise the firmly fossilised power structures within Czech Television, the employees of Czech TV start a rebellion and begin to sabotage the reforms, although in a longer run, it is undoubtedly in their interest to accept reform, because Czech TV will not survive in the fossilised post-Communist form. Sabotaging reform is most effective in the News and Current Affairs Department where the sensitive production process, which ends with a number of programmes broadcast life, can be torpedoed by two or three uncooperative individuals. (It is very difficult to sack people from Czech TV.) In this way, Kytka's reforms were very effectively sabotaged from within the News and Current Affairs Department by a few disaffected individuals. This is obviously why Puchalský and Šámal have not dared to interfere with the fossilised structures in the News and Current Affairs Department for two years.

It is now up to Chmelíček whether he manages to run Czech TV sufficiently sensitively and diplomatically and to bring Czech TV into the modern world by means of inconspicuous, small steps of progress.

Jan Čulík, 31 January 2000

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.

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