Vol 1, No 2, 2 August 1999
T H E I S S U E (#6):
Garbage in, Money out
This issue of Central Europe Review examines the role of television in Central and Eastern Europe in transition. Our three articles on the subject - from the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania - all paint a similar picture of massive upheaval in this most powerful of media. That sweeping change includes privatisation, commercialisation and an increase in foreign influence.
In this regard, Eastern Europe is not much different form the West, where these same processes have been at work for decades. The big national networks and state-supported television stations are everywhere in retreat. Traditional broadcasters find themselves in a major funding crunch, as new, private stations offer ever-greater choice and pull an ever-greater audience share.
In Europe, both East and West, one hears the constant background hum of moaning about "Americanisation," but there is little sense blaming Hollywood for the current state of affairs. The broadcasters and programme producers which have traditionally been seen as national assets are not losing influence due to some spectre of American cultural imperialism; the current weakening of their influence has more to do with the emerging technology.
The power of that technology is evident in the recent history of Central and Eastern Europe. The advent of satellite television and inexpensive video recorders brought the world to the Communist bloc at a time when the ruling party in each country was desperately trying to keep the lid on the rotting system it had created. Of course, access to these new gadgets was not universal, but the very existence of these new technologies made a mockery of an overly restrictive regime trying to control a highly educated population.
Digital television and the Internet will provide even more options for news and entertainment consumers and further integrate these societies into the international system.
Traditional, state-supported broadcasters, relying on centralisation and near monopoly position are inherently threatened by technologies that increase channel options and offer more variety in programming. In a sea of 1000 channels, the big state-supported broadcaster will only ever be one out of 1000 options vying for the individual's viewing attention. And this is true no matter whether the other 999 channels offer low-budget American sit-coms, Japanese sumo wrestling shows or Kenyan safari programmes. The weakening of the big national broadcasters of Europe has little to do with "Americanisation" per se; it is a function of the new technology.
Certainly, the traditional dinosaurs will still have a role to play in the future, but that role will be greatly reduced and is likely to be limited to what can strictly be justified as public service broadcasting.
When they are not complaining about "Americanisation," Central European media experts are worrying about dumbing-down on the new private, commercial stations in the East; however, the common man is not really as naive as Central European intellectual elites believe him to be.
The Central and East European success of American TV schlock such as Dallas and Melrose Place does not represent a general weakening of national intelligence as some critics would have it. It is simply escapism from the daily drudgery of life in an unstable society.
People work harder these days in Central Europe. One's job is no longer a place one goes to relax after a hard weekend's gardening. Plus, many people have two jobs or some kind of business on the side just to make ends meet.
As a result, people want to relax in the evening with some light entertainment; after a hard day's work, no one is much in mood for the avant-garde of modern opera.
When I visit our friends in rural Bohemia, and I notice they are watching something atrocious and American on their televisions, I always ask why they watch it. The response I most often hear is that it is just something fun, something light - they like to laugh at the ridiculous characters and plots.
"Nobody takes it seriously," they say, "Lighten up, it's only a TV show."
And they're right.
On the issue of Central and East European television, what is more worrying than the alleged Americanisation or the supposed dumbing-down is the repatriation of profits generated from newly private stations to Western firms. Local production companies are losing out, and the loss of funds damages the domestic entertainment and arts industry and the economy as a whole. This is a point made well by all three authors who have chosen to write on the theme of television in Central Europe Review this week.
Andrew Stroehlein, Editor-in-Chief, 2 August 1999
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