The draft media bill has been trailed as a game-changer for TV in Greece, but will it rock your TV world? We strap on our hazmat suit and wade through the crap and the hot air so you don’t have to.
This week the Greek parliament will be voting on a fast-tracked bill on the issuing of TV broadcast licenses. The new legislation has been a key element of the Syriza manifesto, which framed it firmly within its battle with “diaploki” (entanglement, corruption). To quote PM Alexis Tsipras back in May: “We are embattled by the oligarchs and the print and electronic media which foresee disaster for the country. The time has come for the oligarchs of Greece to put their hands in their pockets and pay for the frequencies that they hold for free, what they haven’t paid all these years. However much propaganda they produce, we will not change our position because the people are on our side.”
The people are on their side to a certain extent. Hardly anyone in Greece trusts the private media. In the 25 years of their existence, private TV channels have done their best to degrade standards and hone the nation’s appreciation for bling, celebrity and superficiality that arguably fuelled the bubble that we are now paying the bill for. Greece currently has the eight private TV channels that broadcast nationally , in addition to four state ERT channels and the Vouli (parliament) channel (this list is a little out of date). The existing licensing regime is governed by legislation dating back to 1995, which has never been comprehensively enforced, so that for example all private TV stations still operate on temporary licenses, making them fertile ground for political interference. Several of the channels are majority owned by large conglomerates, some of which also own newsapapers, bid for public works and hold large outstanding loans from Greek banks (there is a good academic summary of the regulatory and commercial background here, in Greek). This arrangement is referred to as the “triangle of power” but is also described in less flattering terms, and these entities are the targets of the Syriza/ANEL sabre-rattling. The new bill is designed to reset the conditions for terrestrial broadcast licenses, and make private broadcasters apply for them afresh. It is likely to pass substantially unchanged, as MPs are expected to vote largely along party lines. But how will the new legislation address the ordinary viewer’s concerns?
Below I answer the burning questions, based on way too many hours of viewing of Greek TV (motivated mainly by morbid fascination), a reasonably educated interest in media regulation, and an insight into the economics of the media markets (the latter courtesy of our contributor koutofrangos).
Do the new rules mean I will have to do without innovative programming like… “My mamma can cook better than yours”?
Fear not. Game shows, chat shows and studio-based reality TV are just about the cheapest programming you can make, and ideal for product placement. Greek formats like “My mamma” are even cheaper because, unlike shows like “The Voice” or “Your face sounds familiar”, they don’t require paying to license the format from a foreign company. With the Greek market in the state that it’s in, cheap TV is all that can be guaranteed.
Let me walk you through it. Private free-to-air TV is funded by advertising revenues (in some countries the state subsidises independent broadcasters , but not in Greece). Companies will only spend on advertising if they are in a reasonably healthy state themselves and have a realistic prospect of reaching a market that can purchase their products. Between 2007 and 2015 individual wealth in Greece shrunk by 40%. Net advertising revenues by TV stations halved between 2008 and 2012 and have not recovered since. Since the new legislation is still talking about commercial TV licenses, the same economics will apply, and this will be the determining factor of your viewing experience.
So whoever gets the new licenses, we can expect the same old rubbish but even cheaper.
Can we have Petroula back?
Hope springs eternal for the return of the pneumatically-enhanced weather-girl-turned-roving-political-satirist-turned-discount-appliance-seller (Petroula stalking Dominique Strauss-Kahn on his IMF visits to Athens has to be one of the funniest and most prescient moments on Greek TV in recent years). The media regulator ΕΣΡ (National Council of Radio and TV) is such a lame duck that it only just finalised its decision to sanction Star TV for her suggestive weather reports this year, several years after she went off-air.
The new bill is specifically and narrowly about media ownership, not content. There is nothing in it to suggest that the regulator will be any more robust, independent or well resourced, leaving wide open the possibility that Petroula and her spiritual sisters could find a place again in the brave new media landscape, and in the nation’s hearts.
Will I have to do without shouty news and “windows”?
Don’t be silly. After game shows, chat shows and reality shows, rolling news is the next cheapest way to fill airtime (only marginally less cheap because it would be too conspicuous to present the news with a big carton of cream on the desk). Greek news programmes resemble “Celebrity Squares” in their attempt to squeeze in as many talking heads in the “windows” (παράθυρα, paráthyra). Politicians endorse this as a public service, because they get to posture endlessly, away from the niceties of parliamentary procedure or the accountability of governing. Moreover, you can’t count on TV news progammes for information: a recent study showed that 4/5 of Greek news bulletins failed to distinguish news from editorial content, and 2/3 lacked investigative content (the dead tree media came off only slightly better, scoring 2/3 and 3/5 respectively), while they have been known to suppress negative news relating to their busiess interests.
Take this endorsement from a leading mental health professional: “I advise people to refrain from watching TV. Greek television isn’t exactly dominated by dialogue and information, it’s full of people who just scream at each other.“ By all accounts, Greek TV will continue to perform the same role as “guardian” of the nation’s mental health in the years to come.
Will the new law mean the end of infomercial magic?
Of course not. Telesales is the only kind of programming that pays its own way. So you can continue to enjoy the educational benefits of your favourite more-or-less-thinly-disguised racist conspiracy peddlers, not just those who now sit in parliament. You may even be able to enjoy them on more mainstream channels, since it is hard to see how else they will fill their airtime.
I am the kind of shallow person who enjoys a well-made commercial. Will I get to see some real ads again?
In the bubble years, you would have trouble finding any programming in amongst the endless advertising “breaks” on both public and private TV stations. Nowadays, programmes run promptly and ad breaks on the private TV stations are dominated by a small set of players: banks, telecoms, big domestic food companies (a surreal parade of dairy, processed meat, and ironically these days, a certain German-owned supermarket chain). It is sometimes insinuated that companies which have financial ties to the TV stations (e.g. as their creditors) may not be paying cash to advertise. There is some incidental support for this hypothesis. In the same prime time slots you can also find extended infomercials for mail order firms selling “pretty bras”, “clever hose” and cheap costume jewellery, or pawnbrokers – it’s like a giant flashing neon sign that reads “advertising time is dirt cheap”. Meanwhile, the public service stations screen wall-to-wall embarrassingly bad public service announcements.
So, no. No one is willing to pay real money to seduce you into buying stuff you can’t afford.
Will I get public service TV like the BBC?
If you have led such a sheltered enough existence as to think that ERT was ever anything like the BBC (even in the latter’s degraded present state) then yes, you will get public service TV “like the BBC”. However, if you expect your public service TV to serve you, the public, and not the government of the day, you will be disappointed. And if you expect it to educate, then I refer you to the next question.
But there is good news: you won’t get Fox News or Mediaset either. The Greek market is no prize for global TV companies and the Greek language audience segment globally is way too insignificant (commercially or politically) to justify their involvement. So you’re safe from the polluting influences of a Murdoch or a Berlusconi, or any beast big enough to swing an election single-handedly. Though you might get a friendly second-tier Russian oligarch looking to boost his profile.
Speaking of kingmakers, though, the bill does grant one government minister the power to set the number of TV broadcast licenses and the starting price for the license auction.
Documentaries? Nature programmes? Cultural events?
Don’t be silly. The bill pays lip service to the constitutional aims of “ensuring pluralism, objective and equitable transmission of information and news, reinforcing the social mission of television and supporting the cultural development of the nation,“ but there is nothing contained within that gives a clue how these noble goals will be achieved. This is first and foremost a bill on media ownership, which only requires a minimal 10 hours of “cultural” programming per month as part of the license condition.
More importantly, these things cost money to make and money to license from abroad. You might stumble on a gem of a documentary from the ERT archive or a seminal Russian art film buried on the Vouli channel, but even they get a bit old after the fifth showing… No, I refer you back to my first answer.
Oh stop it. You’re talking big money now.
In fact, in its previous term the Syriza/ANEL government removed the requirement for sports events of national importance to be broadcast on free-to-air TV, with the result that the Greek Football Cup final was only shown on a subscription channel.
In case you haven’t got the message yet, this isn’t about you, dear viewer, it’s about the politicians, their business friends, and their turf.
I do care about where my news comes from. Will this be the end of the oligarchic media?
The bill does specify conflicts of interest that would exclude certain potential bidders, though these are limited to TV research firms and advertising companies. It does not attempt to re-open the issue of conflict with ownership of state contractors, or the issue of borrowing from banks with links to the state; this harks back to the so-called “basic shareholder” affair (βασικός μέτοχος), when previous governments’ attempts to legislate on this front were controversially rebuffed by Brussels as incompatible with European law. Absent, too, is any restriction on cross-media ownership (where the same owner can have stakes in TV, radio and newspapers), a provision that was removed from the law by a previous government, and no-one seems willing to reinstate. So the “triangle of power” remains intact.
The bill mandates the disclosure of all shareholders down to the 1% holding level – however, the draft being debated includes a number of exemptions from reporting, e.g. companies listed in an OECD member jurisdiction, and lax reporting requirements around beneficial ownership, which open loopholes large enough for a luxury coachload of oligarchs, their lawyers and accountants.
There are the obvious prohibitions on individuals with criminal records etc., and there are minimum solvency and capitalisation requirements, which are presumably intended to exclude existing license holders who have racked up massive debts (see below). Again, anyone with a half-decent legal/accounting team would not find it hard to organise some kind of restructuring to meet the letter of the law.
Let’s assume all the existing license holders are excluded or choose not to take part in the bidding process. Who is likely to bid for a license? Applicants will need to meet two criteria: (a) have money or access to money (€2-8 million to capitalise the company, plus the minimum facilities that the bill also mandates, plus whatever the license ends up costing), and (b) not care much about making money from their broadcast activity (the old adage that “you can make a small fortune in this business only if you start with a large one” seems to apply here as much as it does in football). The economics of the Greek TV market are marginal at best. Take away the cheap money, lax lending practices and regulatory laissez-faire that have allowed the existing private TV stations to survive this long, raise the barriers to entry, and the legitimate commercial proposition is even weaker than it ever was.
Only political operators and vanity broadcasters need apply. Regional and municipal stations, even solvent ones, are positively put off by some of the provisions. Muck-rakers have already started compiling a roster of likely bidders for the new licenses, and it’s hard to get excited about their probity, public-spiritedness, and lack of “oligarchic” credentials.
As an aside, it is unlikely that on purely commercial terms the new licenses will raise more than pocket money for the public purse.
And what will happen to the “pimps“ who control the media now? Will the TV stations pay their debts?
All the current private license holders owe large sums of money to the Greek banks, totalling close to €1 billion by a recent estimate, in the form of business loans. These numbers have been repeated frequently in the run-up to the vote, but the bill does not address them directly. Now, if the indebted TV companies wanted to bid for a license in their current form they may have to do their bit to relieve the banks’ balance sheet of any loans that they aren’t servicing (loans that are not “red”, however large, remain irrelevant). But would they want to? It would not be the first time when a media company goes bust only to resurface in a new form scot free, leaving a trail of unpaid bills. That is more to do with problematic bankruptcy provisions than with media regulation.
However, the “old media” only need trouble themselves with this if they insist on bidding for a terrestrial digital license, which is the only type covered by the bill. In this day and age, though, terrestrial TV is pretty old hat, and there are plenty of other ways to reach an audience without being beholden to the government, paying special taxes, hiring unionised journalists, or having to respect any rules on content. There is a growing market for subscription-based satellite TV, some of the “old media” interests have already migrated online, while many of the newer media outlets have forged a path entirely on the internet. In one scenario, then, we could end up with a “new systemic” regulated media domain, alongside an unregulated shadow media space, with no guarantee of quality or trustworthiness in either.
However, we have previously aired a cynical view of all the political noise surrounding the fight against diaploki and what the endgame might be. This would imply a much less radical outcome. In brief, if the old “pimps” resurface, we will have to assume that some kind of settlement has been reached.
Will I finally get my dream job in the media?
Now we’re talking! The bill does set the minimum number of employees (between 50 and 400) required for each type of license-holder, throwing a bone to anyone concerned about the inevitable job losses (not enough of a bone as it turns out; the main journalists’ union has gone on strike, leaving no-one to report on the honeymoon of our latest private island dweller, or indeed President Hollande’s state visit).
Your dream job might be as a cleaner or a security guard, which would be the most cost-effective way to meet the quota.
Will I finally get good news?
I see your sense of humour is intact. This is a media bill, not a magic lantern.
Now read “I want my MTV… the sequel”.
Image: Vintage TV ad from imgarcade.com