Cultural diversity

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Television Across Europe: Regulation, Policy, and Independence—“European cultural diversity threatened”

Open Society Institute's EU Monitoring and Advocacy Program (EUMAP) and Media Program, October 11, 2005 – 2005/10/11

On October 12, the Open Society Institute (OSI) released a major study on television in Europe written by a group of some 20 specialists. On the basis of its research, OSI believes that concentration of ownership in European television is jeopardizing its “diversity and pluralism as well as its editorial independence.” The study concludes that the development of commercial television has led to strong concentration in the European industry, where some 4,000 channels exist and where nine out of every ten households has a least one television set. Over the past decade, private broadcasters have fallen “into the hands of a few media groups” whereas the bulk of national viewership (up to 80% in Bulgaria, Croatia, and the Czech Republic) “is concentrated on a limited number of channels, usually no more than three.”

Concentration of ownership threatens European cultural diversity by limiting pluralism. The study notes that since the introduction of commercial television in the mid-1980s, Vivendi and Bertelsmann/RTL have emerged as the two largest European players in the industry. In Central and Eastern Europe, Bertelsmann/RTL is among the largest pan-regional operators. Other giants include the American company Central European Media Enterprises (CME), which reaches some 80 million viewers through nine channels in Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, Poland, and Ukraine; Sweden’s Modern Times Group (MTG), which operates in the Baltic countries, Hungary, and soon the Czech Republic; Robert Murdoch’s News Corporation group, which owns the biggest channel in Bulgaria; and the European group SBS Broadcasting, which is active in Hungary and has just invested in Romania.

As Le Nouvel Observateur reports, the study also reports on the lack of transparency surrounding some of the investments, acquisitions, and mergers of the past decade, with true ownership sometimes concealed behind offshore interests. Often, concentration of ownership extends beyond the audiovisual sector to other media, as in Slovakia, for example, where OSI notes that local magnate Ivan Kmotrik owns shares in three TV stations and in the country’s largest newspaper distribution network. In many post-communist countries, the current audiovisual landscape stems from “chaotic” changes carried out in the absence of clear policies or a legal framework, as in Poland, where there were over 57 illegal broadcasters in action in the early 1990s.

Moreover, the study found that throughout Europe—where average viewing time has increased to three hours a day—the development of commercial television has led to a decline in quality content. Most private stations rely on low-end entertainment and “sensationalist” programming to pull in larger audiences, whereas certain private investors use the stations they control to promote their commercial interests, notably in Romania, Albania, Serbia, and the Macedonian Republic. In the face of this situation, Europe has been unsuccessful in implementing regulations respecting pluralism, transparency, and viewer protection, deplored OSI, which listed several urgent recommendations to this effect.

The report is comprised of three volumes and a summary. There are also monographs on individual countries.