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EDITORIAL

Culture clash: The numbers don't always add up

TO A DISTANT observer, it could very well appear that Slovaks have been struck by a sudden thirst for culture that they simply cannot slake.
"Culture is in crisis!" sounds the alarm coming from special interest groups. They are overwrought on a number of culture agenda items, including the stagnation befalling the ill-starred Slovak National Theatre building; the Culture Ministry's various plights; and changes within Slovakia's public service television channel, STV.

"People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get."
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


TO A DISTANT observer, it could very well appear that Slovaks have been struck by a sudden thirst for culture that they simply cannot slake.

"Culture is in crisis!" sounds the alarm coming from special interest groups. They are overwrought on a number of culture agenda items, including the stagnation befalling the ill-starred Slovak National Theatre building; the Culture Ministry's various plights; and changes within Slovakia's public service television channel, STV.

Culture supporters say the economic transformation process in Slovakia has seriously affected the fragile body of Slovakia's culture. Indeed, the government has tried to apply economic salves to aches and pains that well-tested business methods cannot cure.

While most Slovaks agree that the commodification of culture is an unpleasant by-product of economic transformation, few have been able to suggest ways to combat the situation.

Government officials have hinted that right now, any further investment in culture is a luxury that the state cannot afford - especially one focussed on attracting lucrative business investments.

Currently, culture - or the dwindling funds to support it - is not considered an urgent problem facing society. Sadly, those with the power to put culture back on the agenda argue that only a limited group of intellectuals desire such a change.

A widely accepted symbol of a culture in crisis is the public television station, STV, which has undergone its most dramatic changes in the past two years. Public for Public, a Slovak non-profit group intent on preserving public access to high quality programming, depicts STV as a very nest of cultural regression.

In all fairness, STV's "golden years" were unsustainable, and perhaps not that golden, either. STV was a typical Communist institution, mammoth in size, which drove itself further into debt with every passing season. Besides over-employment and frequent political intervention, the station suffered from disadvantageous contracts. These guaranteed that certain people received enviable incomes to produce programming of questionable quality - if they produced at all.

When the new general director of STV, Richard Rybníček, took over in 2002, it was the least-watched station on television. He prescribed a radical trimming of the Communist culture, cutting his staff by half. He also cancelled contracts felt to be disadvantageous to STV. Some of the station's most impassioned critics were one-time contractual beneficiaries.

While demanding better value and more original programming is completely legitimate, the financial benefits that STV's critics stand to gain (if STV cooperates with them) weaken their case.

According to a recent poll, around 67 percent of television viewers feel that the quality of public TV has improved. The figure comes from a telephone survey of 500 respondents conducted by Markant for the daily SME. However, 69 percent think STV should broadcast more original Slovak programmes.

An overwhelming majority of 90 percent agree that there should be a public television broadcaster in Slovakia.

Half of the respondents consider the main reason for the current wave of criticism against STV is due to competition between television broadcasters.

Over the past year, STV has been broadcasting several commercial entertainment programmes. The STV general director argues that these programmes are broadcast primarily on channel one, while channel two is reserved for more demanding entertainment.

One of STV's main critics, humorist and actor Milan Markovič, compared STV's management to "drug dealers" when arranging its programme schedule to attract advertisers.

Bohumír Bobocký, a member of the STV council, accused the public broadcaster of fighting illegally in the battle for advertisers.

In a televized debate broadcast on TV Markíza on June 5, representatives from TV Markíza and TV Joj argued that STV weakens the ability of commercial television stations to attract advertisers.

However, STV countered by suggesting that the station's increasing strength is making the competition nervous.

The debate swirling around the role of STV and the state of culture in Slovakia unearthed many serious questions: What does the public want? Is there a demand for more cultured entertainment? Should the public be given what it wants, or should the public broadcaster take on the role of educator and try to shape the taste of the public? Can public television effectively educate the public when a public broadcaster's survival depends on advertising dollars and viewer competition? If public service channels leave sensational, tabloid programming alone, who will be watching STV?

Answering these questions is more difficult than preparing an economic outlook or predicting labour market developments. Subtleties are at work, which the world of business and a pragmatic approach can sometimes bulldoze, causing more harm than help.


By Beata Balogová

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