Kostas Spiropoulos, former general manager of Greek public station ERT, takes a look at the Greek media landscape, where “documentaries” is an unfamiliar term to private TV stations. Without public TV the Greek public will be abandoned to the influence of corporate interests.
The violent shutdown of the Greek Public Television (ERT) is a tragedy for Greek society and the role of democratic institutions. It is also dramatic for its employees, the independent producers, artists and documentary filmmakers in the country.
For the Greek citizens/viewers, the absence of a public television voice and its diminishing role in the long-term means that they, the Greek public, will be abandoned to the influence – cultural and political – of the private Greek TV stations.
The interests of entrepreneurs, who share significant responsibility for the economic crisis, determine the policy of private stations, hence influencing the news and information programs. The media agenda is determined by ten entrepreneurs who are not only the dominant power players of the entire media sector – including newspapers, radio stations and web portals – but also the main stakeholders in the private sector companies providing public services, the energy sector and the most significant Greek industry: shipping.
The media agenda is determined by ten entrepreneurs
Over the last six years, all private television stations in Greece reported losses and they have large debts to the banks, which recently went under state control. Thus, the owners of commercial TV channels and the politicians are interdependent in a power game, which plays out in the news programs. On a daily basis they offer a voice to a multitude of ministers and politicians, while under the surface the real battle continues behind the scenes.
As for the entertainment shows, the private Greek TV channels stopped making new productions in 2009 and have since sustained their programs mostly with reruns. New content consists of Turkish soap operas, a few popular American TV series (crime stories) and an abundance of cooking shows. As for the documentaries, this is an “unfamiliar” term to the private TV stations with the sole exception of the Skai television station.
In this landscape, public television was dissonant, in both the documentary and news information sectors. State channel employees and their unions have known since 2010 that the agreement of the Greek government with its troika of lenders was contingent on a reduction of the number of public channels from three to one, and the firing of the 50% of its employees.
For this reason, trade union leaders in ERT generously offered their support to the opposition party SYRIZA, a party of the radical left, which had promised to public sector workers -including workers in Public TV – that would they will not be fired and that their wages would be increased. The coalition government made great efforts to rein in the objecting employees, who had resorted to unprecedented actions such as refusing, through yet another strike, to cover the visit of the French president, Francois Hollande, in Greece.
The mistakes of trade unionists in Greek public television are mainly due to the fact that they focused primarily on defending the maintenance of jobs and compensation. They ignored the importance of developing cultural and educational programs. In particular they considered the independent Greek producers enemies and refused to work with them.
Conveniently though, they chose to ignore that significant funds from the annual budget were allocated to purchase the rights of expensive sports programs such as the Champions League: the production of these programs gave permanent employees extra income in the form of overtime.
However, is it possible to sustain, let alone develop, a media company, even a public one, when 60% of the revenue goes to salaries?
The trade unionists in Greek public TV ignored the importance of developing cultural and educational programs
The tables below show two snapshots of the financial figures and ERT data during two periods: 2006, before the crisis, and 2013, during the crisis. Despite the 45% decline in revenue from 2006 to 2013, despite the reduction in the number of employees by 53%, the share of staff compensation as a proportion of the general revenue increased from 55% before the crisis to 63% at the peak of the crisis!
I served as a General Manager for two periods: 2004-2007 and in 2012. The second time I was asked to contribute to the reorganization and re-launching of public television. However, cooperation ceased when it became apparent that if ERT developed successfully and became popular it would not be easy to pull the plug.
During both periods there was conflict within the company’s top management. Both a conflict and a dilemma: mainstream TV shows and sports, or documentaries and cultural programs? During the first period we achieved the following compromise: One channel with mainstream programming and a second with cultural programming and mainly documentaries.
Moreover and in order to establish a cultural channel we developed international co-productions with independent documentary producers and made all the preparations for signing bilateral cooperation agreements with ARTE, the Turkish public television TRT, as well as transnational framework agreements with Israel and Canada. To support those international activities ERT had organized, in collaboration with the EDN, training seminars for Greek directors initially through ERT(HistoryDoc) and subsequently through the independent institute Storydoc (www.storydoc.gr)
Thanks to these actions ERT moved up to 6th place in 2006 (compared to 37th in 2004) in the ranking of EBU co-productions. One of the successful results of this plan was the Greek-themed day on ARTE recently (15.08. 2013). ARTE’s broadcast consisted of 17 internationally co-produced Greek documentaries.
Unfortunately, in the last few years this effort to develop independent documentary production waned. The first channel (ET1) – which was dedicated to cultural programming and documentaries – was a “dead” frequency when I returned to ERT in 2012.
My colleagues and I developed a quick almost zero-cost action plan. In a short period of time we organized four seasonal thematic programs aiming to bring the “dead” channel back to life. Thematic units ranged from 90 to 220 hours each and included: Decade of the 40s, the Why Poverty? initiative, The Fall of Communism and the Rise and Fall of Nazism – Fascism. The audience showed its appreciation. Almost instantly the viewership jumped from 0.5% to 5%. In addition, we renewed the co-production agreement with ARTE for another three years and we came to a verbal agreement in principle with RAI. But the plan to close down had taken its course.
The transparency that governs international co-productions was perceived as a threat by strong trade unions and political circles who wanted to distribute public money to their political friends, clients and voters.
150 documentary filmmakers/producers who were quick to perceive the risks for public television – and especially for creative documentary – founded the Greek Documentary Association (GDA) at the beginning of 2013. The Association is not a traditional trade union. It works through creative teams and operates as a think tank, with the aim of raising public awareness about the documentary genre and promoting the development of alternative channels of distribution and funding.
GDA presented proposals for the development of documentaries in both the public and the private sector to the government and the political parties.
In the first phase of this great battle the politicians ignored the proposals of the GDA. They actually made a lot of promises, but avoided taking on concrete obligations. The GDA will continue to fight through a nation-wide campaign to spread messages like the following: If documentarians had never existed, how many Greeks would be aware of Maria Callas? How many would have learned about the Nobel Prize in poetry and of Oscar winners such the Greek filmmaker Michael Kakoyiannis and the composer Manos Chatzidakis for the film Never on Sunday?.. Documentaries are excellent educational tools and can act as Ambassadors for noble causes.
The Greek case, I am afraid, has similarities to the current situation offaced by European public broadcasters. Old-fashioned structures, defensive syndicates and management priorities all over Europe are dominated by the fear of bad ratings. More sports, more “idol”/”talent” formats and fewer documentaries. But if public broadcasters follow this path, they are going to lose their public service mission. Without a vision to act as a cultural leader it is obvious that we will soon face the significant question: Why Public TV?_