Hungarian Public Television

Hungarian Public Television (Magyar Televízió = MTV) is not exactly a haven for high-brow programs. It’s just like all the other television stations that vie for viewers and through them for more advertising revenue.  Although I know that in Europe life cannot be imagined without publicly funded television stations, one has the distinct feeling that the rationale for these public television stations is fading in our modern world. It is impossible to cram everything that the public “should be interested in” within one station: operas, concerts, theater, history, documentaries, movies, literature, religion (all denominations), cooking shows, news, sports, political discussions. Should I continue? Theme channels now dominate cable TV in the United States: entertainment, history, music, do-it-yourself, cooking, sports (including one dedicated to golf), and politics. Just to mention a few. With the introduction of digital television such a thematic solution is easily attainable in Hungary; if I recall, a few years ago, during the contest for the position of president of MTV, Sándor Friderikusz’s proposal actually contained the novel idea of making four or six channels out of MTV, each devoted to a specific topic that would draw targeted audiences. In my opinion no public television station can today compete with the plethora of channels catering to specific audiences. Thirty years ago in the United States the appearance of National Public Television was an oasis in the desert for those, like myself, who weren’t too thrilled with Mr. Ed or the Beverly Hillbillies. Today there are still some excellent programs such as Masterpiece [formerly Masterpiece Theater], the American Experience, Frontline, and Nova, but the general level of evening and weekend programming has deteriorated. (Daytime programming is dedicated to children’s shows.) The fifth time–actually, probably the tenth time–around the same “Keeping Up Appearances” is not exactly on the Tivo “to do” list.

But let’s go back to MTV and the constant trouble there. Most people I know tell me that they hardly ever watch MTV with the possible exception of the late evening political program, Az Este, and on Sundays A Szólás Szabadsága, especially if there are interesting guests. With the populace at large the early morning political show, Napkelte, is also quite popular, but apparently the real winners are quiz shows and light entertainment: Örökös, A Társulat, and Csináljunk Fesztivált. I discovered a few Hungarian-made soaps that were predictably boring (though apparently it doesn’t take long before people become soap-opera addicts), and I found a murder mystery that wasn’t exactly captivating but watchable.

MTV is not so much a producer as a disseminator of content; it produces only 30% of what it airs. The only shows that are produced in house are Az Este, A Szólás Szabadsága, Híradó, and the religious programs. All the others are purchased from outside studios. The excuse until now was that MTV’s headquarters, originally designed to be the Hungarian Stock Exchange (built at the end of the nineteenth century), was inadequate for the needs of a television station. However, soon enough MTV is moving out of its old building and into a modern, well equipped, large headquarters. There will be six studios occupying more than 4,800 m². In addition there will be a 6,000 m² storage area. MTV will rent the building for 29 years, after which it will be theirs. The yearly rent will be 3 billion forints starting in 2009. We’ll see whether the dynamics of production and dissemination change. This is a very complicated media issue; for example, in the U.S. CBS can produce something that NBC buys and then disseminates.

Selecting the president for the television company is always a huge political hassle. I don’t want to go into the details of the Hungarian media law that is far too complicated, but the final result of this ill-fated law is that politics has the last word. During the Orbán government through some clever manipulation the board of MTV became the political tool of the far-right party of István Csurka, the MIÉP. The same happened at Magyar Rádió. Although Orbán hasn’t been in power since 2002 and the MIÉP is practically dead, the right still dominates these two electronic media. A little bit more balanced politically but far from ideal. Just to illustrate how important it is to gain the assistance of the right-wingers on the board, the current president, Zoltán Rudi, who hoped to continue in his current position, tried to win the support of the right-wingers on the board by giving an ultimatum to the producer of Napkelte to fire three reporters Fidesz objected to. Rudi succeeded in getting rid of the three reporters, but that was obviously not enough for the members of the board. His reappointment was not seriously considered. Instead Fidesz-KDNP had its favorite, and MSZP-SZDSZ had its favorite, but neither of them received the necessary two-thirds of the votes. The first round ended in failure. So there is no president at the moment. The whole circus can start from the beginning. Interestingly enough, this time there are seventeen people vying for the job, including Sándor Friderikusz. I really like Friderikusz, but how can he think that he has snowball’s chance in hell of being president of MTV? He is considered to be the most liberal of all liberal TV reporters in Hungary. Perhaps he likes to write proposals. Oh, I’m sure that he would come up with several channels and excellent programs, but I’m also sure that he wouldn’t follow the Hungarian practice of so-called “balanced reporting.” That in Hungary simply means: there is a liberal program and then there must be a far-right program. The two balance each other out. Of course, elsewhere in the world that is not what is meant by balanced reporting. But we are in Hungary where the media is subject to a different set of standards.