Referendum on RTV Slovenia, Part Two: A Few Good Men

Today, more on Sunday’s referendum on RTV Slovenia (for Part One, click here). So, what does the new law change? For that pengovsky will turn to Finance daily who produced a rather nice infographic the other day (free registration)

Shows on horticulture are also a part of RTVSLO programming (source)

Under the new law RTVSLO would no longer be a public institute but rather a full-blooded public legal person which will perform both a public and for-market services. The law will also exempt the entire 2000-strong force of RTVSLO employees from the law on wages in public sector (which made them sort of state employees under the existing law) and would institute a 17-member Programming board (now 29 members), a 7-member Supervisory Board (now 11 members) and a 5-man management (now a single person, the Director General). The infamous RTVSLO levy, now at 12 EUR/monthly would increase with regard to inflation (a change in law is needed for increase now), whereas RTVSLO would by law own all assets under its management (now the state owns everything, while RTVSLO manages it).

So much for the basic contours. Given how powers are divided between Programming and Supervisory Boards and management, their composition is not entirely unimportant. The management is obviously central to everyday operations of RTVSLO. Under existing law the one-man management was appointed by the Programming Board (with 21 out of 29 members being politically appointed by the parliament), whereas the Supervisory Board (9 out of 11 political appointees) has no real say other than confirming Director General’s yearly reports. Should the new law be confirmed, the new Director General will be nominated by the Supervisory Board (with 4 out of 7 members being politically appointed by the parliament, with one of those being appointed by the opposition), the nomination will be voted on by the Programming Board (with 5 to 7 political appointees out of 17). After being confirmed, the new Director General will pick remaining four members of his team, pending confirmation by the Programming Board.

Political pressure

Obviously, the main question is, how much political pressure will be exerted (mostly) over editors and journalists at RTVSLO. But this is the wrong question. It is not about how much pressure is exerted, but rather how much pressure can be exerted. Power has a finite quantity and the more you use it the less you have it. Therefore nothing works better than the threat of political influence. It keeps journalists and editors guessing and breeds self-censorship on one hand and promotes journalists who actively support the ruling political powers (regardless of whether they’re left or right) on the other. The existing law put in place just such a system of fear. Vast majority of board members are political appointees, chosen in 2007 by then ruling coalition of right wing parties. They in turn appoint the director general who in turn nominates editors and heads of radio and television branches to be confirmed by the politically heavy board. There is no part of this process where politics doesn’t have an explicit and overwhelming say in it.

On the other hand, under the new law the only part of this human-resource tango where politics would have any meaningful say in it is the part where Supervisory Board nominates the new Director General. And even then at least one member politically appointed quartet of Board members (out of altogether seven members) is appointed by the opposition, specifically, by the opposition-controlled parliamentary committee for oversight of public finances. After that politics is all but removed from the process as the Programming board only has five political appointees out of total 17 members and all other appointments are handled by the Programming Board as well. Even more, as far as editorial appointments are concerned, the management must seek approval of at least half of journalists in any given desk. If approval is not won, the management calls upon the Programming board to take over the editorial nomination at which time journalists of the desk in question may nominate their own candidate.

Therefore, one can say without a doubt, that under the new law the threat of political interference is greatly reduced. This of course does not mean that there will not be attempts or even cases of pressure being brought to bear, but that is nothing compared with the direct line of fire of political pressure that was established with the existing law.

Money, content and ratings

In 2009 RTVSLO had some 118 million euro of revenue, 83,5 million of which was due to 12 EUR/month RTVSLO levy imposed on every household in the country. With a total profit in Y09 amounting to a staggering 53,000 euro (yes, 53k€) it can be said that the institute’s finances have been at least somewhat stabilised, despite the fact that a little birdie tells pengovsky a second look at RTVSLO’s books might turn up funny shit. But be that as it may, the main question (as noted yesterday) is what do those 118 million buy us?

That of course depends on where you stand. In pengovsky’s opinion RTVSLO programming has gone from bad to worse with licensed and/or badly produced programming filling the prime time and being heavily marketed to the point where news programming looks out of place. It should, of course, be exactly the other way around. Or, better yet, it should all be packaged into a more-or-less seamless product of quality television and not just a couple of relatively OK shows serving as intermission between two pieces of televised crap. As it things stand now it appears as if every one has his or her slot – or, rather, plot – where they do what ever the fuck they please, without any regard for overall output. The end result is, of course, sub-par, even in terms of Slovene television, let alone internationally. Yes, I’m looking at you, POP TV

There are those, however, who feel that polka-laden TV shows in Friday primetime are a nifty idea. That a Dancing-With-The-Stars-lookalike is just the thing for Tuesday night and that a political version of Jerry Springer show is the highpoint of investigative journalism. And just to reiterate this last point: Pogledi Slovenije (Slovenian Views), hosted by Uroš Slak, ran on POPTV for almost eight years where it was cancelled amid what was apparently a clash between falling ratings and demads for salary increase. But hey, if it’s discarded by POPTV it surely is good enough for RTVSLO. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Yes, ratings. Obviously, they matter. But public service is more than just ratings. It’s about ensuring various social groups have access to mass electronic media and are able to a) inform the general public of their views and activities and b) maintain cohesion and a sense of identity among their members. It’s also about making sure the public is informed in all matters concerning it. In short, it is about being a public service. A public radio and television.


Speaking of social groups, one of the more debated provisions of the new law is the duty of RTVSLO to produce programming for all minorities in Slovenia. While Italian and Hungarian minorities enjoy special protection in accordance with the Constitution (Italian minority even has it’s own radio-television sub-unit), other minorities were only scarcely represented in regular programming. The new law specifically points minorities from former Yugoslav republics and this sparked a few quite ugly reactions along the lines of “why should they live off our RTV levy”, case in point being a blogpost by Marko Pigac (Slovene only) who in the comments to his post even goes as far as “in Slovenia only Slovene is spoken”. Pigac is not nearly the only one who has the problem with care for minorities, it is only the most outrageous example of the above I came across.

In pengovsky’s opinion this provision is a good one. Just as ethnic Slovenes, people from former Yugoslav republics pay RTV levy as well. So in pure economic terms they are entitled to “their slot” as well. But it goes beyond that. It is about RTVSLO being inclusive rather than exclusive. It is about being of the citizens rather than of the decision makers. It is about being public rather than state.

Will the new law make RTVSLO better?

No. And neither will it eliminate world hunger, end all wars and reconcile this nation. Laws don’t do that. What the law will do is provide grounds for RTVSLO to pull itself together. For this to happen, limiting influence of politics is a precondition. The law does that. Drastically reducing the number of politically appointed members of the Programming Board and enabling the political opposition to appoint a member of the Supervisory Board (limiting the coalition to three out of seven board members) is a huge step in the right direction. Hopefully in time political appointments will be abolished altogether.

Having said that, there are provisions which all but demand extremely responsible people to head RTVSLO. One such provision is the power of RTVSLO to form joint venture subsidiaries in such a form that the institution holds a majority stake. The law allows this for purposes of performing for-market services (article 17) and requires any such move be confirmed by both Programming and Supervisory boards.

This does allow RTVSLO to draw upon private resources and expertise, especially in cases where highly specialised knowledge is needed or for purposes of time-limited projects without additionally tasking resources and people engaged in public services. It also enables a clean division between for-public and for-market activities of RTVSLO. What it needs, however, is plenty of oversight.

The law provides mechanisms for it, but – as with programming – it will take a few good, responsible and highly professional men (and women) to make that happen. And that too can be achieved first and foremost by taking politics out of the equation as much as possible.

Tomorrow: third and final part 🙂

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Referendum on RTV Slovenia, Part One: More Cowbell!

Slovenia is to hold yet another referendum this Sunday, this time on the recently passed law on national radio-television, RTV Slovenia. While not critical to the government of Borut Pahor (although it came with a price), the result will nevertheless be interpreted as an important benchmark for PM and his team and Sunday’s vote should therefore not be underestimated. But seriously, what is it all about? In short, it’s about turning state radio and television into public radio and television once again.

Boy with a flute, the mascot of RTVSLO by sculptor Zdenko Kalin (source)

The current law on RTVSLO (one the new law seeks to replace) was crafted in 2005 by then newly minted government of Janez Janša, passed by Janša’s coalition in the parliament and then confirmed by a very narrow margin on a referendum called by the freshly dethroned LDS, then still led by Tone Rop. The law was widely seen as a blatant attempt to subjugate the biggest and most influential public media in the country, mostly by changing the organisation and composition of Programming and Supervisory boards, making them more, shall we say, government friendly by increasing the number of seats in both bodies (thus making them ineffective in the long term) and increasing the number of government-appointed members: 21 out of 29 and 9 out of 11 for Programming and Supervisory boards respectively. In addition wages of all workers at RTVSLO including journalists were now subject to the Law on wages of civil servants, making their connection to the state even stronger. They were now in fact employees of the state, overseen by state-controlled boards.

The law was drafted almost single-handedly and vigorously defended by a prominent member of Janez Janša’s SDS Branko Grims, who later concocted an overhaul of the media legislation earning him the designation of Goebbels wannabe. But in all honesty, not everything about the law was inherently bad. One thing the law did achieve was to somewhat stabilise RTVSLO’s finances by introducing a special levy, a solution which has proven effective although highly unpopular (as levies tend to be) and object of many a mockery, mostly along the lines of “this is what I get for my 12 euro?”

So what did Slovenes get for their 12 euro per month? Well, not much. In fact, there’s a general consensus that RTVSLO programming has gone from bad to worse. Not only was political influence plentiful, now it was also government sanctioned. Not only was there less and less interesting content, ratings were being chased by actively mimicking programming approaches of privately-owned POP TV (which is anything but a public service). Thus RTVSLO willingly abandoned its role of a standard bearer in terms of keeping overall professionalism and quality content at acceptable levels. Add to that the constant tug-of-war between urban and rural Slovenia (more cowbell!) and you have one big money-guzzling clusterfuck which has just gone digital.

While Radio Slovenia – the “R” in “RTVSLO” – somehow managed to keep producing quality content and evade serious raids on its autonomy, this can not be said for TV which has provided us with some memorable epic fails, pengovsky’s favourite still being The Bomb in Studio/Big Bad Ultra double bill which was probably one of the lowest points RTVSLO hit since independence, courtesy of semi-competent journalists on a mission and a drive for ratings at all costs.

Shoddy programming was backed by shoddy management and in the end RTVSLO ended up paying shit-load of monies for various projects which either never saw the light of day or burnt cash faster than a Concorde with an engine on fire, adding precious little to either specific or overall ratings. It was as if accordion-based content was the only game in town…. Errr… In the village, that is. Because shows which included a lot of polka, dancing and accordion were a huge hit. Well, I guess almost anything you air during Friday primetime is bound to become a hit. In this case it was the accordion. There you go.

At any rate. The referendum is now on. And the latest polls suggest that a) the turnout will barely reach 20 percent and b) those who intend to vote are split almost down the middle, with those opposing the law holding the tiniest of edges. This will probably go down to the wire (again) especially since there is a lot riding on this vote politically. Which is why it is even more curious that the coalition has until now made only token efforts in promoting the “yes” vote and the opposition did similarly little in promoting the “no” vote.

More on that tomorrow, of course 😀

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