AIM: start

WED, 19 DEC 2001 01:45:27 GMT

Serbian Broadcasters

The Battle for Channels

The Serbian Legislature will soon pass a broadcasting bill whose most important role will be to serve as a basis for allotting broadcasting channels. Of 11 big TV stations probably only two, in addition to Serbian state TV, will obtain channels covering all of Serbia (Yugoslavia). This will also enable them to pocket hundred of million of dinars which advertisers are ready to pay for commercials. Pink TV, BK TV and B92 are vying for this opportunity.

AIM Belgrade, December 6, 2001

The turmoil over broadcasting channels in Serbia, accompanied by frequent mention of past sins and future scams, a row between the Serbian premier and a number of once independent media outlets -- things become clear when one realizes the quantity of money involved: this year the 11 biggest Serbian TV stations ran commercials worth about DM150 million.

This is how much producers of various goods advertised on TV screens in Serbia had set aside for the purpose. The net amount, after other costs are deducted, reaches DM100 million. Not much, compared to DM2 billion paid for that in Poland, or DM1 billion paid in the Czech Republic, but still a handsome sum, given that only two years ago the figure was DM38 million.

This is to say that in two years' time, hundreds of millions of German marks will be at stake. But before that, the Serbian Legislature will have to pass a broadcasting bill, a major consequence of which, in the light of the aforementioned facts, will be that it will serve as a basis for distributing broadcasting channels to Serbian TV stations.

Of the 11 stations mentioned above, in accordance with the future broadcasting act, only two (and maybe, but maybe, three), in addition to the state-run TV network, which will become a public broadcasting service, will be allowed to cover the entire country. In other words, they will get the opportunity to pocket the hundreds of millions advertisers are ready to pay to promote their products. The others will have to satisfy themselves with being small TV stations, which means dead TV stations when it comes to influence.

This is what will ultimately happen, and this is why the sides involved are slugging it out, but none of them are completely right. Everything is in the game: ambitions, the past, power, control... There is, first of all, the Serbian cabinet, which is late in drafting the bill and has a non-transparent, but still quite noticeable wish to keep as many media outlets (TV stations) as possible under its control; this is also what the second strongest force in Serbia, the Democratic Party of Serbia, which has left the cabinet of its own volition, would also like; there are also two major TV stations -- Pink TV and BK TV -- which have the best ratings but which also have the greatest sins of the past (their owners, Zeljko Mitrovic and Bogoljub Karic, respectively, used to be very close to the former regime); then there is TV B92, a station that grew out of a rebellious radio station bearing the same name, whose founders believe they have deserved channels because they championed the anti-Milosevic struggle, and finally, there is TV Kosava, once owned by Milosevic's daughter, Marija Milosevic, and subsequently sold, via mediators, to the German Bertelsman media concern.

The positions of these stations, of course, are not equal. Mitrovic's Pink is the most widely watched Serbian TV station, which gets the most of the marketing money, 45 percent. BK TV is second, getting 18 percent of the sum. TV B92, on the other hand, thanks to its international position among those who are shaping the future image of Serbian society, has a great deal of influence, quite unproportional to its ratings (3 percent compared to Pink's 30 percent) and money advertisers are willing to pay it (only 1 percent).

Its managers claim that they are pushing authorities to pass the broadcasting bill because TV stations are operating in unequal conditions, and they are quite right. This station, obstructed and suppressed by the former regime, today covers about 20 percent of Serbia and Belgrade, meaning that it has the greatest competition -- it broadcasts where everybody else does.

Pink and BK TVs have built TV relays across Serbia, thanks to their connections with the former regime and long ago met a major condition required by advertisers -- that they can reach 30 percent of the population, or over three million people. On the other hand, the same operating conditions were valid for all other stations, except TV B92, not to mention the highly monopolistic Serbian state TV, but not one of them was as successful as the two of them. This could also serve as a valid argument in discussions on who should get the channels.

According to the bill, broadcasting channels will be distributed by the Broadcasting Council, a body composed of representatives of universities, the Association of Public Broadcasters, domestic NGOs and citizens groups promoting human rights and, particularly, freedom of speech, government and non-government organizations promoting ethnic minority rights, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences...

Council members will then be elected by the Serbian Legislature, and from that point onwards, the bill says, the government will let them do their job freely. The council will grant broadcasting licenses and revoke them, if certain broadcasters do not follow the rules. This sounds ideal, but the ongoing commotion over the channels, months before the council is set up, indicates that here (and probably everywhere else) it is impossible to organize anything ideal. Thank God.

The ruling parties have people in the universities, in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, in NGOs and in everything else existing in Serbia (and they are more or less equally distributed: one-third supports Djindjic, the other Kostunica, and the third part those whom the two of them say they should). This is why Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic's senseless statement during his visit to the U.S. -- that media outlets that fought Milosevic will get a medal, but not channels -- has been taken quite seriously. The premier, according to the bill, will have nothing to do with who gets a channel and who doesn't. True, his statement does not mean that what he says will indeed happen: TV B92, reacting to it, alarmed all its allies across the world, which are quite numerous and some do have a significant influence on the Serbian premier.

The results, for the time being, are still in the making. Once they are final, they could easily bring happiness to the government, broadcasters whose past is far from being impeccable, and others who deserve medals of merit. But this is not to say that everything will be honest and fair, which, by the way, is hardly expected by anybody in this country.

Ivan Radovanovic