Short, sorry saga of private television, as government fails to enforce regulations

With the second largest number of television stations, in relation to population, Greek society is heading for yet another European first. (The figure includes a plethora of regional and local television stations.) The number of tele-entrepreneurs is constantly increasing even as quality drops and profits, legal ones at any rate, dwindle. What are the causes that push a number of entrepreneurs to invest in television, and how are the stations funded? Research by Roi Panayiotopoulou, associate professor at Athens University’s Faculty of Communication and Mass Media Studies, which focuses on the growth of regional and local television in Greece («Tileorasi ektos ton teichon» [Television beyond Walls], Kastaniotis), sheds light on crucial aspects of mass media dominance in Greek society. 150 local stations According to the survey, there are 150 regional and local stations in Greece, which translates into one television station per 69,780 inhabitants. The only country ahead of Greece is Spain, with 700-800 local stations, one per 52,265 inhabitants. For the purposes of comparison, France and Germany have one TV station per 2,789,000 and 2,322,400 inhabitants respectively. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the ratio is one station to slightly over 1 million inhabitants. In Great Britain, Finland, Ireland, Austria and Portugal, the number of local channels is negligible. Only in Italy, with its 750 stations, is the ratio close to that of Greece (one per 76,272 inhabitants). Local TV is thus very much the sport of the European south – a sport with bad equipment, antiquated technological infrastructure and of a quality that is in inverse relation to the number of stations. However, says Panayiotopoulou, the number of national broadcast stations is also large in relation to the size of Greece. Provisions were made for six licenses; nine to 10 stations are broadcasting at the moment and 16 applications have been submitted, she told Kathimerini. «How can such a small market satisfy so many channels? Where do they find the funding?» she wondered. Political aims The roots of the problem need to be sought in the period when private television came into being. As is well known, the two first private television stations, Mega and Antenna, began broadcasting in 1989, to a limited extent at first, before going nationwide. At the same time, the first local channel, TRT in Volos, went on the air. The abolition of the state monopoly was totally unprogrammed, carried out under pressure from political interests and without any financial study. This was not without consequences. Decisions by the Tzanetakis and Zolotas governments led to state property – which is what radio and television frequencies are – falling into the clutches of private interests that lacked adherence to the rudiments of financial and ethical rules and regulations. Certain big publishers have thus acquired the ability to invade the homes and living rooms of all Greeks, without the requisite checks. «The publishers were those favored by Law 1866/1989,» said Panayiotopoulou. «They did not, however, obey the prohibition on parallel participation in the same media (owning two or more stations). Moreover, it should be stressed that such favorable treatment has not been observed in any other country in Europe,» she says in her study. Since that time, intertwined interests have mushroomed. «Since 1993-94, most shareholders in television corporations have tried to promote their own parallel interests, chiefly in construction, in order to win contracts for large-scale public works. Because in the last few years an important part of the national economy was based on construction and generally, supplying the public sector, pressure exerted by owners of media outlets to be given works contracts massively increased,» says Panyiotopoulou in her study. The situation was the same at local level. «The start of operations by regional and local television stations was anarchic and unprogrammed. From early 1990, and within three years, over 145 television channels made their appearance,» says the study. The causes of this local television boom did not differ from national ones. «Many private owners were enthusiastic about the privatization of Hertzian frequencies, about the freedom of expression and the hope that entrepreneurial activity on television, apart from profit, would help them influence the formation of local power bases and relations of clientage,» which, with decentralization, acquired greater value at a local level. Little time was needed for private channels to gain a position of dominance. «Private electronic media undoubtedly contributed to the democratization of television, but they so obviously had the upper hand over state mass media that they extended their influence to the public sphere. This was often interpreted by the mass media as an open invitation to break the rules of basic human rights. Moreover, with profit as their aim, they proceeded to make choices that had as a result the diminution of program quality,» the study, «Tileorasi ektos ton teichon,» notes. Besides the impact on television itself, the dominance of private channels offered opportunities for influencing the political agenda. The endless gossip of television talk shows has drowned out any other political debate and counterarguments, which are unlikely to gain a privileged slot on the eight o’clock news, and after. Successive governments have shown a typical inability to intervene and regulate, though enforcement of the law is a huge problem. For example, the most recent (Law 3021/2002), which supposedly imposes transparency on mass media ownership and excludes ownership by state contractors (with the loophole of the basic shareholder clause) has borne no fruit. The real owners of television stations (known to all of Greece) can hide behind offshore companies or employees acting as bosses. The procedure for granting operating licenses to broadcast stations has been an outstanding issue from the very first days of private television, nationwide stations excepted. For the majority of local and regional stations, the process has not yet been completed. «This is a Greek global first. They vote in a law which merely postpones the whole issue,» said Panayiotopoulou.