Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
Zelezny Pulls the Plug on Czech TV Nova
Licence wrangles over Nova TV sees the channel split

Jan Culik

On 5 August 1999, the conflict between Vladimir Zelezny, the licence holder of the most successful Czech commercial Nova TV and its American "service providers" came to a head.

Vladimir Zelezny and the licence holder CET 21, in which he allegedly holds 60% participation interest, pulled the plug on CNTS, Ceska nezavisla televizni spolecnost (The Czech independent television company), which is 99 per cent-owned by the Bermuda-registered Central European Media Enterprises (CME) and which until recently was the goose laying golden eggs for this ailing TV broadcasting company. CNTS was the only CME TV company making substantial profits, which were being ploughed in to subsidise CME's less successful TV ventures in Central and Eastern Europe.

On 5 August, at 6 am in the morning, Zelezny started his own full-time Nova TV broadcasting from a makeshift studio at the Barrandov Film Studios in Prague. He simply switched CNTS off the air without warning and on a minor pretext and started to run his own television company as part of his long term plan to free himself from the "accursed Americans". The existing, advertised broadcasting schedules were dropped and Zelezny put together new programming "on the hop", allegedly broadcasting tapes of old re-runs while the studio was being hastily re-built for the next live chat show.

For the first few days, the new Nova TV broadcasting seems to have been decidedly shaky. Zelezny and CET 21 have lost the broadcasting rights for some long running, highly popular soaps as well as for some of the staple Nova TV programming. This, however, has not prevented Zelezny from running these programmes as though he owned them. CNTS has taken out an injuction against this, barring for instance, the broadcasting of Nova TV' s current affairs programme Na vlastni oci (With Your Own Eyes), which, according to the letter of the law, can be produced only by CNTS. It is interesting that the ownership of the Nova TV logo itself is split between CNTS and CET 21. Zelezny and CET 21 can use it on the screen but not in the real world. Thus, some argue, if one of Zelezny's TV reporters stands in the street with a microphone with the Nova TV logo on it, he is breaking the law.

CNTS was left high and dry when Zelezny ran his own, decidedly shaky main evening news on 5 August. It was fronted by Nova TV' s popular weatherman, Ray Koranteng and a not very articulate presenter called Lucie Bohryova. In the meantime, CNTS, deprived of transmitter facilities, could only broadcast its own main evening news on a giant screen, placed on Prague's famous Wenceslas Square. There, the news was watched by a few dozen onlookers, mostly journalists and employees of advertising agencies.

Advertising agencies were also left in a very difficult situation by Zelezny' s sudden move. CNTS at an instant found itself in a position where it was unable to fulfil existing advertising contracts. In the meantime Zelezny' s new broadcasting facility started broadcasting without advertising.

The creation of a new, parallel "Nova TV" and the removal of CNTS from the air has left many of the employees at Nova TV in a dilemma. A considerable number of broadcasters have, however left CNTS for the new television station, since they probably feel there is not much point working for a television station which has currently no means of broadcasting to the nation.

CNTS is feverishly negotiating access to the satelite TV network. It is allegedly also due to join up with a regional commercial TV station, Galaxie, based in Hradec Kralove. Gradually, Galaxie is supposed to extend its terrestrial broadcasting outside the Hradec Kralove region. Soon, it is supposed to be available in Greater Prague. Thus it may be that the Czech Republic will have two different Nova TVs.

The Czech media has been following these developments from an absolutely parochial angle, totally ignoring the international aspects of the whole Zelezny-CME conflict. The headline in the Prague tabloid Blesk (Lightning), printed on the front page on 6 August, sums it up: "Zelezny now broadcasts without Vavra." (Vavra being the Czech head of CNTS.) The tabloids are mostly reflecting the worries of the Czech viewing public that they might be deprived of some of their popular soaps. In Blesk on 12 August, for instance, a worried headline posed the question troubling the nation's mind: "The series in jeopardy: Will Esmeralda be broadcast without Czech dubbing?" - Esmeralda being a cheesy Mexican soap with an avid Czech following. Other periodicals (the weekly Reflex, No 32/1999), followed the "heroic" struggle of the new Zelezny team to start up the television station anew.

When Zelezny was interviewed on Czech public service radio last Wednesday by two ill-prepared journalists, he was able, as usual, to manipulate the programme absolutely to his own ends, turning it into one big advertising session for himself. When, at the end of the programme, listeners were invited to phone in, five out of six of them congratulated Zelezny on "yet another huge success" (these listeners are not preselected by the Czech Radio production team).

But will Zelezny get away with freeing himself from the Americans? It has been the policy of CME not to acquire broadcasting TV licences in the Central and East European countries, in which they have started television stations. CME has always found local allies who obtained the licences, and provided service stations, which produced the programming, for them. Needless to say, most, if not all the advertising profits went to CME.

It goes without saying that the local allies would have been very firmly tied into the whole scheme by CME through fairly watertight contracts. Thus it is well-known that Zelezny has the duty of absolute loyalty to CME through such contracts. It is because of the alleged infringement of these contracts that Zelezny is being sued by CME at the International Chamber of Commerce.

However, Zelezny argues that the current moves are not being undertaken by him at all: they are being undertaken by CET 21. It is not Zelezny who has taken CNTS off the air: it is, supposedly, CET 21 which has done this. The fact that Zelezny owns 60 per cent of CET 21 (if he has not recently sold it to a different consortium as some sources allege) seems to be immaterial in his view.

It will be interesting to see whether an international chamber of commerce will accept the line of reasoning that a company can be fronted by a particular person (in this case Zelezny), the company may be owned by this person, but the person does not have any duties or liabilities, because all the actions are taken purely by the company.

There is also another serious issue at stake. Zelezny is acting as though he owns the broadcasting TV licence, which he obtained under false pretences in 1993: he and his five colleagues submitted a project for a relatively high-brow TV station, based on the advice of the British Independent Television Commission (which regulates British commercial TV broadcasting). The moment the licence (worth undoubtedly dozens of millions of dollars) was awarded to the CET 21 consortium for free, Zelezny and co dropped the original project and went downmarket. Currently all his rather controversial moves are being viewed by the Czech parliamentary media commission and the Council for Radio and TV broadcasting with tacit understanding. According to unconfirmed reports, Zelezny has managed to win influential Czech politicians to his side by promising them support on his TV station. The situation is rather intricate, but the current absolute silence from the Czech regulatory bodies is deafening. Surely a licence for commercial television broadcasting must not be viewed as private property, owned by one particular rather shady character, who can do whatever he wishes with it. It is a public asset which should be temporarily "loaned" to a particular individual or a group in order to do television broadcasting. As it is, Zelezny' s TV licence is not permanent and will have to be applied for again in a few year' s time. It is however rather likely that his influence on the Czech media scene will be so strong that no parliamentary body will dare to refuse to renew him the licence.

The whole, rather controversial story, is seriously threatening to damage the international reputation of the Czech Republic. Admittedly, CME are no angels. Nevertheless, they will have a point if they argue that it is unwise to invest in the Czech Republic and it will be all to easy to point out that if you manage to set up a sucessful venture, the local people may well steal it from you with the tacit approval of the Czech powers that be.

Jan Culik, 16 August 1999

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

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER:

Czech Revival: No Pulse 99, 9 August 1999

Princess Diana, Al Fayed, the CIA and a Czech Spook, 2 August 1999

Nova TV: Commercial success or embarrassing failure?, 2 August 1999

Book Review: Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate, 26 July 1999

A Concrete Example of Muddy Thinking in the Czech Press , 19 July 1999

Press Freedom under Threat, 12 July 1999

Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999

The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999





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