Comment: Time for Real Public Media in Bulgaria

State radio and TV need to overhaul their finances to guarantee their independence and the quality of their programmes.

Comment: Time for Real Public Media in Bulgaria

State radio and TV need to overhaul their finances to guarantee their independence and the quality of their programmes.

Bulgaria needs urgently to reform the finances of Bulgarian National Television, BNT, and its radio counterpart, BNR, after 15 years of transition in which both institutions have kept the financial system they had in the communist era.

For more than a decade of post-Socialist reforms, the present outdated system has hindered the transformation of these two state-run giants into true public service operators.

This has had a negative effect on the whole media market, preventing it from developing a sound economic structure.

The media community needs clearly to define the public service mandate of BNT and BNR, which are currently vulnerable to political and commercial pressures.

The goals of their programmes need to be re-formulated and regulated by law, to secure better useage and proper accountability of the state subsidy, which, in a cost-effective manner, should be directed to producing public service output.

A new mechanism to fund BNT and BNR should be worked out to guarantee their independence from political and economic interests.

Until 1990, BNT was the only television network in the country. Then, it was entirely controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

After the one-party system collapsed, newly-organised political parties began struggling to control BNT, which remained the only TV broadcaster with national coverage until 2000.

Eventually, two other commercial, national terrestrial television operators appeared, bTV and Nova TV, both owned by large foreign companies.

The development of the radio market was more dynamic. In 1992, the first officially-registered commercial radio station, FM+, started broadcasts. Currently, more than 250 FM commercial stations operate, many linked to national networks.

Two operators have national coverage, BNR, with three channels and five regional radio centres, and an independent commercial station, Darik Radio, which got its license in 2000.

Legally, the two state media giants were reassigned as national public service broadcasters in 1998, under the newly passed Radio and Television Law.

The transformation process was scheduled to last for a decade, as the law obliged the state to finance them fully until the end of 2003, after which it envisaged gradual cuts in state subsidies and increased financing from a Radio and Television Fund.

This fund was supposed to be sourced from monthly fees collected from listeners and from license and registration fees, paid by the commercial media.

In fact, the fund has failed to develop, owing to a lack of political will. As a result, BNT and BNR are still financed from the state budget and no other mechanism has been thought up to ensure their independent financing.

One consequence is that although they retain lead positions in local media, they function more as commercial stations than public service outlets. They are also exposed to constant pressures from corporate and political interests.

The long-term solution lies in comprehensive financial reform.

Political independence can only be secured with the reform of their finances, as current practice has proved destructive to professional standards.

Political pressures on the two media bodies for more than a decade have caused constant management crises, while various forms of censorship and self-censorship over the years have undermined the image of journalism in Bulgaria as a whole.

Corporate influence often manifests itself through external and co-production programmes. Under the law, these should not even address political or economic topics but in practice there are constant violations of these rules.

Similarly, the regulative body, the Council for Electronic Media, is also still funded directly from the state budget, undermining its political independence.

The only way to improve the situation is to shift the source of funding and put it beyond the politicians’ control.

This would transform BNT and BNR into public service media, majoring in programmes of public interest, financed in a transparent and justifiable manner.

At the moment, commercial interests dominate BNT programmes, making them resemble those of most other private stations and leaving minorities or underprivileged groups, for example, poorly catered for.

BNT’s responsibility to address the needs of various social groups needs to be looked at afresh, as its programmes currently barely differ from commercial operators. BNR is in the same position, with programmes that also seem to echo commercial needs.

Besides the negative social and political repercussions of all this, the current financing system damages the economics of the rest of the media market.

At present, the state budget subsidy is determined on the basis of expenses incurred per hour of programming. It is not related to - or conditioned on - the production of public service programmes.

This puts BNR and BNT in a privileged position, contradicting the whole philosophy behind state subsidies for public service functions.

It also conflicts with the European competition rules, which require defined public service obligations, established in an objective, transparent manner.

Although BNT is subject to legal restrictions and can sell only up to 15 minutes of advertising time daily and up to four minutes per hour (for other public service operators it’s six minutes per hour and for commercial operators, 12 minutes per hour), the station is still the third biggest player (after bTV and Nova TV) on the advertising market.

It is clear that a budget subsidy can only be justified by the allocation of specific tasks for the production of particular public interest oriented programmes, while a new concrete and improved mechanism for financial control and accountability needs to be drawn up.

The inefficiency of the current system is revealed by comparing the number of people employed in BNT and the biggest private television, bTV. This shows that taxpayers’ money supports five times more staff in BNT than the number performing equivalent duties in bTV.

The trouble is that although the problems facing the Bulgarian media are grave, both media representatives and the country’s legislators seem far from finding solutions.

The Radio and Television Fund shows no signs of materialising soon.

This means other mechanisms guaranteeing the financial independence of the public broadcasters and the regulatory authority need to be considered.

There is an urgent need to guarantee the public character of both BNT and BNR. This has to be done through new programming schemes, which in turn can only result from a broad public debate over social needs. At the same time, drastic measures should to be taken to optimise their financial administration.

Assya Kavrakova is the Program Director European Integration and Regional Stability Program Open Society Institute - Sofia

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