I would like to start with an old story. I began paying attention to Hungarian politics in the spring of 1994, just about the time of the so-called "media war." On the English-language list on the Internet which I joined, the mostly liberal Hungarians living or studying in the United States knew a great deal about the background of the firing of, if I remember correctly, 126 employees of Magyar Rádió. I, on the other hand, who knew very little and wasn't familiar with the Hungarian way of doing things, thought that since the staffs of both Magyar Rádió and Magyar Televízió were bloated it was a rational decision to let some people go.
Well, you can well imagine that I was alone in my very naive assumption. Soon enough, after learning a little more about the background of the "media war," I also came to the conclusion that my liberal friends were right and I was wrong. Sure, the number of people working for the two public television stations and the radio was enormous and economic considerations dictated a substantial reduction in staff. The problem was that the selection of people to be axed was based on alleged political views. Or, more precisely, the first to be dismissed were those who were considered to be liberal or who didn't sympathize with the government of Péter Boross– those who asked difficult questions from government officials.
Governments in Hungary consider the public media to be something they must control. They think that through these organs they can influence public opinion. That was most likely the case in the spring of 1994, but a year or so later the situation changed. No longer was there only one television station. Moreover, the number of radio stations also multiplied after the passage of a later much maligned media law.
Today, MTV has barely any viewers, although we have to keep in mind that a lot of people, the poorer strata or people living in the boondocks, still have no cable connection. By contrast, when it comes to Magyar Rádió the propaganda value of the station is considerable. It is the only station with a strong enough signal to be heard anywhere in the country. And a lot of people listen to "Krónika," the noon news, for a summary of the day's events at home and abroad.
My understanding is that the two television stations and Magyar Rádió have a total of something like 3,500 employees. From the little one can learn about the government's plans, most likely 1,000 people will get pink slips between now and the fall. The question is who will find themselves without a job in the next couple of months.
Although the man in charge of the staff cuts refuses to reveal the names of those who have already been dismissed, Népszabadság published a list of the people it knows no longer have a job. I'm not familiar with most of the names since I rarely watched MTV, though people working in the media discern a certain political bias in the selection process. The only person I know who was axed was Antónia Mészáros, the co-host of "Az Este," an evening show that focused on current political events. I thought she was an excellent interviewer, but she had one major strike against her: she is the daughter of Tamás Mészáros, a well known liberal journalist and a member of the Monday night "Újságíró Klub" on ATV that has a huge following.
By the way, the published list doesn't include the names of those former TV stars who no longer have any work to do because their programs were eliminated yet who still get enormous salaries for twiddling their thumbs.
The situation, especially at MTV, is most likely chaotic and wasteful. Yet once again it looks as if this necessary financial step is being used to change the political coloring of MTV even more. As far as I'm concerned, MTV was already under the influence of Fidesz even when the socialist-liberal government was in power. But that doesn't seem to have been enough. The new leadership, as far as I can see, is stacking MTV with former employees of HírTV and even Echo TV. Or, when it comes to the radio, with employees of right-wing radio stations like Lánchíd Rádió.
Current policy makers and media politicians hope for a larger viewership, but I will be very surprised if their hopes materialize. For one thing, it is exceedingly difficult to carve out and defend a space for public television in the digital age with the potential for hundreds of channels, from Food TV to the Golf Channel. Public television should not be a politicized version of commercial TV but, at least in its ideal form, should offer quality programs that have educational and artistic content. But, given the limited appetite in Hungary for adult education, it's unlikely that this kind of public television would attract a large viewership. A few years back one applicant for the job of director of MTV, Sándor Friderikusz, suggested that MTV be split up into several specialized channels. Would that have worked? I have no idea.
All I can say is that I suspect, given the quality of some of the new key people at MTV, the channel's viewership will shrink even further. Meanwhile 1,000 people will most likely be unemployed for a very long time.