Letter from Thessaloniki

After almost two decades of false starts, Greek private radio and television once again became something to talk about – and not something to watch. A recent poll, conducted after television programs aired a string of allegations about politicians, showed that 71 percent of viewers believe the main objective of programs was to boost ratings. In fact, the enduring (and abnormal) regime ruling television was actualized in 1989, with the consent of all political parties. I have worked in television – state and private – since that time and know how concepts, after some appalling execution, become perhaps the most lousy television in the entire European Union. Television is not only a pastime; it’s a massive playground where children grow up. Paternally minded viewers, as well as the seemingly appalled and ostensibly sickened press, cry foul and appear to be more concerned about language, overt sexual references and violent behavior than about lack of values and quality. Since our attitudes toward the right morals derive from the Old and New Testaments, the question of whether it is permissible to enforce morality comes up again. That’s good. The National Council for Radio and Television (ESR) last Tuesday ordered a radio station, Best 92.6, to close because a presenter named Grigoris Psarianos had used «vulgar expressions» during some of his shows last summer. Now, I know that in the United States of America the freedom to publish anything is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. That is the law there. What I do not know for sure is whether the First Amendment also guarantees the right to truly say whatever you want, without repercussions. As far as our Greek Constitution goes, press freedom allowing anyone to express and distribute his thoughts in speech, writing and publishing is allegedly guaranteed by law (Article 14). However, this press freedom also says, through Article 15, that the provisions of the law protecting the press do not (I repeat: DO NOT) apply to cinema, recordings, radio, television and other related media for transmitting speech or performance. This is disingenuous. Defining freedom of the press is not easy. As TV programming goes, it might be childish, sloppy or even sleazy, but I must confess that I find that – sometimes – Greek trash TV can be a whole lot of fun to watch. Since I never watch early afternoon programs, where lives fall apart in often devastating ways, I turn instead to the late-night shows. I make sure I am sitting comfortably (lying in my bed under warm covers) and watch Anita Pania’s inane, lowbrow, bogus, exploitative crap on a channel whose name eludes me. The program is called «Sleepless» or something like that. You could call it a satire or a shameless self-parody. The protagonists are plucked from the fringes of Greek society, shunned by «proper» network television: foreign workers, the overweight, the underprivileged, the uneducated and inarticulate. Programs like Pania’s are low-budget trash, there is no doubt about it. But there is very expensive trash out there as well. Consider our local state channel. ET3, based in Thessaloniki, accepts state subsidies and advertisements, too. Its defenders want it to stand out as Greece’s flagship quality broadcaster. This may have been in the case in the past, but not anymore. The people currently running this country cousin of national TV need to ask what this local channel is for – or rather, what it should be for, before recommending the best way to create a program. Sadly, no one has done this. Instead, with an eye to the profit-making guiding commercial private television, they stick a fat finger in every pie – from reality shows to breakfast television. As a result, those ambitions are chewed into commercial pulp. This type of programming is not an attempt to secure more independence from the government. Despite what ERT – and even viewers – might think, this is not public television’s shining moment. A recent survey published in the daily Eleftherotypia found that three-quarters of the people questioned said they believed private stations flatly serve the interests of their owners. Overall, they considered the large state channels the best. Also, viewers said they barely trust those TV-loving politicians who – eyes gleaming with what appears to be deep emotion, though insiders know it is probably only eye drops – struggle to explain themselves in the 40 in-depth seconds of airtime offered to them. Those polled felt the prevailing characteristics attributable to television reports were exaggeration (52 percent) and arrogance (15 percent). Yet, ruled by the highest power, the AGB ratings, the most depressing news of all is this: We’re only getting the TV we deserve.

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