To be precise, it is about public service as the public television company of Hungary, MTV, exemplifies it. This institution started its life in 1957 and held alone the interest of the Hungarian population until the change of the system in 1989-90 and after. The Magyar Televízió, of course, was a state run, communist-directed propaganda tool in the service of building the socialist state. To emphasize its stand in contrast to the despised capitalist past, it was housed in a gorgeous palace in downtown Budapest in the building of the long defunct stock market, only a stone's throw away from the Parliament building.
However, the “new” Media Law, enacted in late 1995, reorganized the market to open it up to private broadcasters as well as to regulate the activities of the public television and radio stations. As a natural consequence the western media interests almost immediately entered the market and the number of television stations has grown to six in short order. The state-owned station had to compete on the open market. The street lingo soon baptized it “the Royal TV” to distinguish it from the commercial stations.
At the same time the new media law created a supervisory board, whose members are nominated by the parliamentary parties and an “oversight” committee with delegates provided by civic groups. This latter is more numerous and less accountable than the former, since the civic groups are not elected and often are shady organizations whose membership and goals are dubious. They are chosen in a lottery-like process.
Over the last fifteen years the operation of the public television was nothing short of a spectacular series of scandals. The political parties in power always considered the station as their own mouthpiece. The groping for influence and propaganda advantage was one of the central occupations of every government. Officers and employees were dumped unceremoniously every time the powers that be found this desirable. In the meantime the quality of the programming has deteriorated to inconceivably low levels. The political masters in the governing party’s headquarters held the purse, so the officers of the corporation had to do the bidding of their masters or be fired as it happened most of the time. The number of employees and outside suppliers was in the thousands. So much so that when at one time more that 1200 employees were dumped at once the corporation could continue without any apparent effect. The government poured billions of subsidies into the station and all it required in return was political loyalty. Need I say, the corporation was rife with corruption and ineptitude? The viewer statistics were plummeting. The MTV viewership was around 10% in January this year, but fell further to 8% by July.
No matter how much money was devoted to MTV, the quality declined, the deficit grew and the financial woes multiplied. Four-five years ago the president of the day decided that selling the building would be the saving grace for the Company, because the resulting cash injection would cover the deficit and leave some cash to revamp the institution. This president, Zoltán Rudi, was an accountant so nobody questioned his figures. The building was appraised at 6 billion forints and it was hastily sold to a young Canadian developer for 4.5 billion, with the proviso that MTV is leasing it back for two years, at 2 billion yearly rent until they can move to new premises. So, the deal squandered the “saving grace” in one fell swoop.
In the meantime the mandate of the “ingenious” president expired, he disappeared from the scene, leaving power in the hands of a newly appointed vice president no less ingenious. He also left behind a binding contract that forced MTV to move to a new building in Óbuda, built specifically for them by a private developer, where they will have to pay a monthly rent of 1 million euro, the equivalent of 3.5 billion forint a year for 18 years. Afterwards they can buy the building for 60 billion, although the cost of building it was only 20. As you can see that new building is nothing to sneeze at.
The supervisory bodies meanwhile, in a paroxysm of political horse-trading, failed time and again to agree on the person of a new president by scuttling several competitions for the post. That left Balázs Medveczky, ranking vice president in position to do as he pleases.
The public at large heard first about Mr. Medveczky, when it was announced that he walked into the office of the owner of one of the most established and most watched programs on MTV, called Napkelte (Sunrise), and broke up the contractual relationship then and there effective immediately. This was hard to believe. It became even harder over the following days as he came out with new explanations day after day, every one of which turned out to be a ludicrous, blatant lie. But he stood his ground and immediately launched a substitute program. The main difference between the two was that Napkelte cost MTV nothing but brought them 100 million yearly income, while his own substitute had to be produced in-house and had no advertising contracts at all. All observers of this strange affair agreed that MTV just triggered a very expensive lawsuit to come. Opinions were also nearly unanimous about the motives of Medveczky, clearly showing the political jitters due to the impending Fidesz take over of government and trying to please in advance his future masters.
The producer of Sunrise, Tamás Gyárfás, did not give up easily. He made alternative offers to MTV but was rejected. Negotiation not being in the cards, he decided to wield his considerable influence in government circles and managed to convince the framers of next years budget that MTV’s financial management was terrible, therefore they should not be subsidized any longer. This idea came very handy to the government of prime minister Gordon Bajnai. Being for many months in the throes of a brutal austerity drive, the government decided to cut the subsidy of MTV by 9 billion, effectively leaving them with nothing, adrift to swim, or sink.
MTV is operating with enormous apparatus, thousands of employees and expensive outside production houses produce a less than mediocre result at taxpayers expense. At the same time the commercial TV stations work with a fraction of MTV’s resources and personnel and yet they have a much higher market share and are profitable without any subsidies.
However, Fidesz and personally Viktor Orbán reassured MTV a couple of days ago, exhorting them to hold out just a little longer, because when his government comes to power in the spring help will be soon on the way.