Minister sets out new future for STV and SRo

A NEW media colossus housing both of Slovakia's public-service broadcasters – television and radio – is Culture Minister Daniel Krajcer’s solution for what he called the catastrophic situation within Slovak Television (STV), which has lately been bleeding from several wounds: mounting debts, a general director who cannot be sacked, and loss of credibility.

The building of the public-service television in Bratislava. The building of the public-service television in Bratislava. (Source: Tomáš Benedikovič - Sme archive)

A NEW media colossus housing both of Slovakia's public-service broadcasters – television and radio – is Culture Minister Daniel Krajcer’s solution for what he called the catastrophic situation within Slovak Television (STV), which has lately been bleeding from several wounds: mounting debts, a general director who cannot be sacked, and loss of credibility.

Krajcer, a nominee of the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party, wants to have STV and Slovak Radio (SRo) placed under one roof by January 2011. While observers had been expecting such a decision, they were surprised by the brief time frame within which Krajcer wants the two media organisations, which have several hundred employees, to merge.

“It is a non-standard solution, given its speed, but it is a move which at the same time includes some of the conceptual changes I have been working on for a longer time,” Krajcer said.

Krajcer believes that he has both political support as well as the backing of the public, at least to a certain degree. The minister has restated that he is principally in favour of preserving the public-service media.

“I consider their existence [as being] justified as they should broadcast programmes that are needed but still uninteresting for private television stations from a commercial aspect,” Krajcer said in an official statement.

Krajcer also argued that the model of putting public-service television and radio under one roof already exists in about 43 countries where public broadcasters are members of the European Broadcasting Union, while in 14 countries the two are separate.

Krajcer’s predecessor, Marek Maďarič, a nominee of the Smer party, toyed with the idea of creating a public media colossus, which would also have involved the state-owned TASR newswire. At that time he faced massive criticism, with opponents suggesting that such a move would have been intended to keep the public media under tighter control. This time, however, Maďarič, now a member of the parliamentary opposition, is more cautious about the merger. He says that first a series of gradual steps must be taken since SRo and STV “aren’t just pieces of Lego, which can be joined without any problems, in the way [the] culture minister imagines”.

Based on the cabinet’s decision, a new public-service institution called Slovak Radio and Television should emerge. The new public broadcaster could use two acronyms: SRTV and STVR. Krajcer is now supposed to prepare legislative changes based on the agreement of the coalition political parties and will pursue discussions at technical and political levels. According to Krajcer’s plan, Slovak Radio's broadcasts will be narrowed from its current six channels to four, and STV's from three channels to two, STV1 and STV2.

Krajcer hinted that SRo's music station Radio FM might be cut. The suggestion immediately evoked some fiery responses, with people arguing that it is the only music channel in Slovakia which actually broadcasts alternative music as opposed to the predominantly commercial output of its private rivals. Krajcer later modified and re-interpreted his statement.

The Sme daily reported that within a couple of minutes of Krajcer's initial comment a protest group was set up on the social networking site Facebook named “I am against the cancellation of Radio FM”, and that it attracted thousands of members in just a few hours. Later the same day, Krajcer gave assurances that this type of alternative music will be preserved on SRo or its successor.

As for the structure of the new SRTV/STVR, its main bodies will be the general director and a supervisory committee. The director will be selected by parliament based on a proposal by the parliamentary culture and media committee. The current councils of STV and SRo will be dissolved and their authorities in large part transferred to the new SRTV supervisory committee, the Council for Broadcast and Retransmission (RVT, also known as the Licensing Council) and also the parliamentary committee for culture and media. While the SRTV committee will decide on financial issues, the RVT will monitor content.

Parliament might receive the draft legislative changes in November. Along with a new draft law on SRTV, there should also be a revision to the law on broadcast and retransmission, as well as changes to other laws.

Media experts say the situation in STV is no longer sustainable and have called for action.

“STV basically faces two problems: the financial situation and then the obvious political influences within the media,” Ivan Godársky, of the MEMO 98 media monitoring think tank, told The Slovak Spectator. “Only future developments will show whether the merger solves these two problems, since the debts will not be erased, only transferred to a new institution.”

Obviously, the minister wants to ensure that STV does not generate new debt and, according to Godársky, that would indeed be a great achievement.

“However, what is really shaping the image of STV is political influence, which has been obvious in recent years,” Godársky said. “It is questionable whether this influence can be erased, because in a sense, it [the proposal that the director be selected by parliament] is a step backwards.”

There have been previous efforts to move the selection from parliament to independent councils precisely so that MPs do not change the management of the public broadcaster every time a new parliament is elected, he added. Godársky was quick to add that the councils often provided merely an illusion of independence and often represented political interests. This is why it remains a question how far politicians will really be interested in deciding who is professional and not politically inclined, he stressed.

“The most recent selections of the [STV] council members were political in a pretty straightforward way and this is what started the process that got STV to where it is today,” Godársky said, adding that the basic problem of the institution is that it has lost all credibility.

Krajcer wants to have a new director selected in December so that the new structure can be launched in January. However, the ruling coalition parties have not yet put forward any specific nominees for the post, according to Sme. The creation of the new organisation will probably end the career of SRo director Miloslava Zemková, although the ruling coalition has not expressed any dissatisfaction with her performance.

According to Sme, prior to the parliamentary election there was speculation about a possible move by the general director of private TV network Markíza, Václav Mika, to STV. Mika has since resigned from Markíza. When asked about the speculation, he responded: “STV has always attracted me. Never say never.” The names of Peter Abrahám, a member of the Licensing Council, and STV3 founder Andrej Miklánek have also been mentioned. Journalists have also floated the name of Miroslav Kollár, a former chairman of the STV Council.

Despite other observers being taken aback, Godársky said he was not shocked by the minister's proposal and said that it was obvious that he had been expected to come up with something, and that the current legislative situation did not provide many options for more radical solutions.

“Yet this is a radical solution,” Godársky said. “It is true that the government's programme statement does not include anything like it, and so in that sense it was a surprise. Yet statements by the minister had suggested that something similar might happen.”

However, Godársky expressed some doubt about whether it is wise to hurry things by aiming to wrap up the transformation by the end of the year. The most important thing will be how the rules are set, what approach parliament takes and how the control mechanisms are defined, he concluded.

Michaela Terenzani contributed to this report

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