THE INTRODUCTION of the people meter in August 2004 revolutionized Slovak television. It gave stations a way to measure the amount of time people watched specific programmes.
Six months later this modern electronic device is one of the most important factors influencing the marketing of TV stations in Slovakia today.
People meters have sharpened competition, encouraging TV stations to introduce popular programmes, particularly reality shows, to capture a greater share of the audience.
However, private television stations in Slovakia object to the financial support that STV, the public broadcasting station, receives from the state.
They argue that the industry has reached international standards in Slovakia and therefore should be similar to other countries.
STV counters that legislation controlling the amount of advertisements it can broadcast separates the public station from those abroad.
People meters were launched on August 15 in a test operation. The first official metered results were presented two months later, in October 2004.
People meters make it possible for TV stations to react swiftly to viewers' preferences, making the broadcasting market far more dynamic. Stations can analyse what viewers are watching and when on a daily basis.
Previously, television stations used a so-called diary method to evaluate viewer preferences, which took two weeks to produce results.
Matej Ribanský, advertisement sales director of private station TV Markíza, told The Slovak Spectator that people meters "definitely raise the pressure on broadcasters to make attractive programmes available to viewers."
Advertisers and media agencies are interested in placing TV commercials in front of target viewers, to make their advertising campaigns as effective as possible.
Says Ribanský: "Today, the fight for every viewer is a daily one. In fact, it's a fight every minute of broadcasting."
Ľudovít Tóth, spokesman for private station JOJ TV says that stations now know - and much more accurately - who is watching, which also pays dividends to viewers.
"The viewer is able to find his or her favourite programme more often when he or she wants it," he said.
Tóth added that advertisers can better target their commercials and thus work with their advertising budget more effectively.
Public broadcaster STV agrees that people meters have had a decisive impact on the market. "The market has become transparent. We can use the 'unified currency'. It clearly shows viewer preferences. We expect that the television schedule will change more quickly than it did in the past. No one will wait half a year for the 'resuscitation' of the schedule. The change will come in weeks, maybe days. No one can afford to keep an unsuccessful programme in the schedule any more," said Branislav Zahradník, a member of the STV management.
TV stations are thus making an effort to improve their news broadcasting and produce their own programmes and shows. Types of programmes that might be familiar to foreigners but are a complete novelty for Slovaks have begun to appear.
Reality shows, for example, started popping up during the second half of last year.
Critics say that STV, with two channels, is no exception to other stations.
It aims to win as large a portion of viewers as possible by cancelling programmes about alternative music and literature which attract low viewer numbers and showing programmes that compete with private TV stations.
SuperStar, the Slovak version of British television's PopIdol, currently broadcasts on STV, is at the heart of the controversy over state sponsorship.
"The television market is a bit behind countries comparable to Slovakia, mainly because of the late introduction of the electronic measuring of the viewing audience. The parallel existence of public and private TV stations is specific to Europe. And a fight between STV, which is paid for by viewers fees, and private TV stations is a specific feature of the Slovak market," Tóth said.
STV has rejected allegations that its programme schedule is becoming too commercial. It argues that such an evaluation comes from a not-very objective assessment of its first channel, Jednotka, which is aimed at family viewers.
Zahradník emphasized that in addition to Jednotka, its second channel, Dvojka, provides programmes for more demanding, special-interest and minority viewers. Altogether, STV is not losing its public character, he says.
"We have never said that [programmes for a minority viewer] must reach a record viewing audience. But they should have at least some [viewers] otherwise the money is not used economically. We think that fewer than 2 percent of viewers is too small, even for a minority audience," Zahradník told The Slovak Spectator.
He thinks the allegation that STV is losing its public character comes partly from a nervousness about the success of STV programmes.
"I do not think that the public character means dull, boring and a poor viewing audience," added Zahradník.
Private station Markíza complains that STV is financed from three sources: TV commercials, viewer fees and a subsidy from the state.
"All around the world, support for public broadcasters comes from either one source or a combination of sources. But in the case of the combination, the public station has [greater] limitations on the amount of advertisements it can accept and broadcast, compared to private TV stations," Markíza's Ribanský said.
"We can openly say that we can consider such state assistance to STV as unjustified and at the expense of private TV stations. The market position of private TV stations reflects their ability to use their potential. Unfortunately, the situation is deformed by the approach of the state," he said.
STV agrees that it should become independent of the state budget - to an extent. It points out that independence is impossible given the current situation, when roughly 500,000 households do not, but should, pay viewer fees - a real threat to STV's solvency.
Unlike Ribanský, STV's Zahradník thinks the share of advertisements the public station is allowed to broadcast could be higher.
"I would welcome a discussion about the permitted share of advertising broadcast on STV.
"Currently it is limited to 3 percent. 10 percent would be the optimum," Zahradník said.
Future of the TV market
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Not counting regional TV stations, Slovakia currently has two private stations. Do you think there is room for more broadcasters in Slovakia, with its 5 million inhabitants?
Matej Ribanský, TV Markíza: The room for operating another private TV station is not defined by the number of viewers (even though market size matters) but mainly by the purchasing power of the inhabitants. If the market is strong and creates good conditions for an increase in household and individual consumption, the potential for investment in TV commercials rises as well. This fact supports the creation of new media.
Ľudovít Tóth, TV JOJ: Apart from TV JOJ and Markíza, Slovakia also has news station TA3 and music station MusicBox. It means there is room for small, specifically targeted TV stations. But at the end of the day, the commercial success of such projects depends on viewers' and advertisers' interest. However, there would be no space for general, terrestrial stations because the broadcasting bands are already taken.
TSS: Currently, reality shows are among the most popular programmes on Slovak television. If you look at trends abroad, what do you think will dominate Slovak television in the near future?
Branislav Zahradník, STV: It is time to think about digitalization, which will significantly change the programme structure. We have to be prepared for the fact that many new specialized stations - like sports, science, news and kids will be established. Viewers will have plenty of choice.
Ľudovít Tóth, TV JOJ: The phenomenon of reality shows will last until viewers in Slovakia will see their many variations, which are shown in the [outside] world.
After them, the era of local low-cost series and sitcoms will come.
24. Jan 2005 at 0:00 | Marta Ďurianová