Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 6, 2 August 1999

television in Central and Eastern Europe T E L E V I S I O N:
Surviving on Schlock

Catherine Lovatt

For those outside Romania attempting to gain an insight into the workings of Romanian television, there is scant information available. Unlike the BBC or the American networks, world-wide recognition is lacking: organisations such as PRO TV, Antena 1 and Tele 7 abc seem alien phenomena by comparison.

The transition from Communism to democracy is affecting all areas of Romanian life, and television is no exception. Their reliance on foreign imports means that Romanian television stations find themselves facing many of the problems inflicting businesses throughout the country.

For years, Romanians were subjected to state-run television: a propaganda machine showing the Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, talking to 'his people' two hours every day. Some lucky souls received satellite programmes, but they ran the risk of incurring the wrath of the dreaded secret police, the Securitate.

The fall of Ceausescu left a gap in media production. This was quickly filled by small, newly established Romanian private television companies and large Western enterprises. Limited funding, outdated technology and limited experience meant that the new Romanian companies were unable to compete with the larger Western organisations. Consequently, many of the Romanian companies now come under the auspices of Western firms.

American dominance of commercial television stations is undeniable. This is best demonstrated by a glance at the TV listings which include shows ranging from Dr Quinn Medicine Woman to the X Files. The collapse of Communism released a thirst for things Western. Television was one medium through which Romanians could vicariously experience the 'Western' dream. The popularity of programmes such as Melrose Place indicates a preference for certain lifestyles - lifestyles that are as glamorous as they are out of reach. The seemingly unabating craving for commercial TV has been fuelled by the need to escape the Communist past and the stresses of today's reality.

American financed Central European Media Enterprises (CME) - the first company to launch a national commercial network in the former Soviet Bloc - controls PRO TV in Romania, a station which has been attacked for extreme pro-NATO hype and for inappropriately supporting only reform-minded parties. By contrast, other stations, such as Antena 1 and Tele 7 abc, have been criticised for assuming a nationalistic stance and their anti-Semitic reporting.

The TV market's subjectivity and its reliance on cheap Western imports of programming means that television does not reflect the true nature of Romanian society.

Exporting the cash, suffocating the local talent

What's more, the money the medium generates is not being invested in Romanian television companies, which desperately need equipment and funding in order to develop and enhance their own work, but is, instead, siphoned out of the country to organisations such as CME. Romanian nationalists point to the erosion of 'national identity' through American programming, but more immediately, losing earnings to American conglomerates reduces the financial means available for domestic productions.

Allowing international organisations to control national broadcasting licenses raises a moral problem. Media such as television, radio, newspapers and journals all have the potential to mould public opinion, and international interests may not necessarily coincide with national interests; indeed, the may well erode national identity. On the other hand, international influences may actually enhance a country's progress, and, advantageously, private television does provide Romanians with a much wider selection of programmes than the state run channel. One may hope that as new perspectives are presented, a more balanced view of the wider world will develop.

Unfortunately, in Romania there is too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Romanian television's selection of Western programming presents a limited and rather shallow view of Western life.

This situation for domestic producers is also not helped by the many legal loopholes in copyright law. Pirate recordings of films onto video have cut potential profits and limited the self-financing capabilities of the TV companies. The government have recent moved to establish stricter controls, but their effect remains to be seen.

State sector in even deeper

The financial worries of Romanian television are not unique in this country suffering from a severe financial crisis, and in many ways, Western financial backing is actually keeping these companies afloat in unstable times. By comparison, the state-run TVR channel is facing severe problems in this economic downturn. The organisation's workers have been unpaid for several weeks, and 65% of production employees are to be laid off by the year 2000.

The nature of the imminent sackings is also under question. Mediafax has suggested that they would be politically motivated - that the redundancies would remove all those who refuse to comply with decisions of the current rulers. The contention is that pluralism, freedom of speech and freedom of information are under serious threat. (Mediafax, 27 July 1999).

In actual fact, the Romanian state-run television system is crumbling, and although the Western controlled, private television stations have their financial drawbacks, but they have at least survived to become the foundation of home entertainment. Private stations now find themselves caught in a vicious circle. The present economic climate necessitates close links with large international enterprises; without their support many of the Romanian private television companies would crumble in the current crisis. But, foreign domination also means that many potential Romanian productions are lost in a sea of American leftovers.

Catherine Lovatt, 27 July 1999




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