Digital television with good image, but not contents

digitalna televizija

Digitalization of television signal in Macedonia did not contribute to democratization of communications and to greater media pluralism, although that was one of the main objectives according to the Council of Europe’s recommendations.

Kristina Ozimec

Quality television image and signal, but not greater freedom and pluralism in the media – this is how connoisseurs comment the digitalization of television signal, which had improved image and sound of televisions, but failed to ensure greater democratization in the media space.

In 2013, Macedonia was among the first countries in the region to have shut down analogue signal and transferred to digital signal, which is of better quality and which, in addition to technical quality, should have offered better quality of contents to viewers.

In the public, digitalization of television signal was understood as technical process that should have improved the image, sound and other opportunities related to television viewing, but that is only one aspect of this process, connoisseurs comment.

“Recommendation of the Council of Europe obliged the country to promote democratic and social contribution to digital broadcasting”, reminds Snezana Trpevska, PhD, from the Institute for Communications Studies.
“The recommendation stressed that the public interest should be preserved also in the digital environment, which – inter alia – implies preservation of the freedom of expression, access to information and pluralism of ideas and opinions”, adds Trpevska.

She also stressed that the country had voluntarily accepted that model by being a member of the Council of Europe, and has integrated it in the laws, whereby the authorities should continuously follow policies and documents of the Council of Europe.

“The regulatory body competent for this public aspect of the digitalization process should follow these documents and raise activities for this process to be implemented as necessary. On the contrary, considering the fact that the regulatory body is partisan and politicized, we are witnessing pursuance of political interests for the benefit of the party in government and the process was implemented in this manner. This is not valid only for the current, but also for the previous regulator, in particular because the previous regulator bears most of the blame for the manner in which digitalization was pursued”, says Trpevska.

In the last several years, officials and governmental representatives made frequent statements in the public indicating that Macedonia is the first country in the region to have pursued digitalization of television signal, but what are the advantages of this entire process?

Zoran Fidanovski, member of the Agency for Audio and Audio-Visual Media Services, said he is not at least convinced that transfer to digital signal has assisted in democratization of communications.
“Facts show that digitalization has enabled clearer insight into what true television viewers want in terms of programme contents. Offers of national televisions, irrespective of the fact whether they are broadcasted terrestrially or through cable, satellite, internet platform, with very few exceptions therefrom, fail to meet the criteria, let alone the audience appetites. On this account, relevant polls indicate that at least one third of viewers does not ‘flip through’ domestic TV channels and exclusively views foreign programmes of various contents. Hence, it is programme offer and not digital signal that should be of crucial importance for the success of a television outlet”, says Fidanovski.

According to the chairman of the Council of Ethnics, Mirce Adamcevski, transfer to digital signal and the relevant regulations in place have in no way allowed democratization of the media, given that they continue to be in the hands of ruling authorities and dependent on them, through the “independent” regulatory bodies. In his opinion, the digitalization process had not been sufficiently transparent and inclusive.

“A National Coordination Body was not established for the digitalization process, although an entity of such type should have led the overall work in a transparent manner. Then, not all necessary legislative changes were made. Three multiplexes were ‘forcefully’ awarded for operation by a business entity. Now, the entity operating them has serious difficulties in recovering the money invested”, says Adamcevski.

Who gains and who loses from the digitalization process?

According to Trpevska, the first question is whether the manner in which the digitalization process was pursued in our country favoured domestic broadcasters or not, because all the countries conducted this process to enrich their domestic offers.

She said that the first Broadcasting Strategy covering the period 2007-2012 anticipated the signal transmission to be pursued in a manner that would benefit domestic broadcasters, which should protect the cultural identity and domestic contents, but that strategy was not implemented and the open calls ended in concession awarding to foreign companies.

“Those operators use frequencies that have been awarded to the Republic of Macedonia and the frequencies are public good, i.e. they are considered public resources, such as water, ore, etc. Most of the countries do not handover transmission to somebody else for the purpose of broadcasting foreign channels, but use it to broadcast domestic contents”, says Trpevska.

In her opinion, what the digitalization has brought in terms of pluralism of contents, both on national and regional level, in terms of cultural and language pluralism, as well as political pluralism, is another issue.

“In the past, we had many stations broadcasting programmes in minority languages, but they were only regional and local. This diversity of language has been lost because if they are not able to financially produce contents, they would be even less able to produce them in minority languages”, she adds.

According to Dejan Georgievski from the Media Development Centre (MDC), the biggest benefit from the entire process is enjoyed by the operator of DVB-T multiplexes for commercial television, i.e. the company One.

“As for the televisions, this process [digitalization] implied new costs that can be afforded only by the biggest [media]. That is how we lost local terrestrial television, i.e. all local televisions switched from terrestrial to cable transmission. Awarding management of DVB-T multiplexes for commercial television to a private company is problematic, knowing that the company was given actual monopoly and can dictate prices”, he says.

According to Georgievski, this situation negatively affected local broadcasting as the local televisions, unable to afford payment of fees charged by One, have transferred to cable broadcasting.

“Thus, citizens from smaller rural areas, where placement of cable network is not cost-effective, due to the small number of inhabitants for which subscription is an important item in their respective family budgets, have access only to national and regional TV stations and received significantly less local information, which should have otherwise been of great importance for them”, he adds.

In December 2013, the operator One announced that they have achieved coverage of 94.9 percent of households in Macedonia.

Representatives from One.Vip said that, as regards local radiobroadcasters, the tender procedure on selecting the operator had not anticipated local, but rather national and regional transmission.

“If [the question] concerns regional channels, in the beginning the number of local channels deciding to transfer to regional broadcast was higher, but later their number decreased. At the moment, there are 16 TV channels that are transmitted regionally. The manner envisaged under the tender procedure implied price-setting for regional and national transmission. Although, in technology terms, regional broadcasting – to a certain extent – is more complicated, having in mind the lower ability to cover transmission costs, the amount for regional transmission accounts to 632,400 MKD/Mbps compared to national transmission whose fee, according to the tender procedure, is set at 4,836,000 MKD/Mbps. In spite of this low fee, some regional TV programmes have decided to transfer to other types of transmission”, representatives from One.Vip say.

MDC representatives said that local televisions cannot afford to pay for terrestrial signal transmission to One.Vip, as it accounts for around 100,000 euros for national and around 14,000 euros for regional broadcasting.

Ruling party enhanced its media portfolio

According to connoisseurs, competent institutions have used the digitalization process to further their clientelistic relations with media owners.

“When it is not perceived as resource, the terrestrial network is more limited than the digital network, which allows existence of much more channels. This, in theory, should imply that digital network enables greater political and cultural pluralism in the media. However, that did not happen in our country. The reason for that is seen in the fact that the digital network was yet again used as clientelistic resource”, says Igor Micevski from the Institute of Communication Studies.
Representatives of the Media Development Centre said that the ruling party has again used the opportunity to enhance its “media portfolio”, in particular at regional level, through businessmen and media owners close to them.

“Through the regulatory body, it [the ruling party] prevents entry on the market for new televisions that could be expected to primarily care for the public interest, first and foremost, by means of their critical approach to societal processes and governmental work and policies”, says Dejan Georgiveski from MDC.

According to Trpevska, fact is that the government both through the regulator and relying on other mechanisms it has at its disposal, such as state advertising, for years now, has pulled in [media] owners on its side, by giving them lots of money.

“On the other hand, the regulator approved changes to ownership structure or merger of televisions, as was the case with local televisions that are connected to regional networks, formally breezed through applications for changes to ownership structure without digging deeply into the background of media ownership. Now, a brief analysis of media ownership shows that we have such formats of ownership structure that again favour the ideology and politics of the governing establishment”, she adds.

The Agency for Audio and Audio-Visual Media Services stated that digitalization has not affected professionalism in the work of media or journalists. According to them, citizens are enjoying multiple benefits from the process, such as better quality of image and sound, possibility to access large number of programmes, subtitles in several languages, electronic programme guide, possibilities for interactive television with the use of internet connection, faster teletext, and the like.

The public broadcaster remains marginalized

Instead of being leader in digitalization and pillar in defending the public interest, MRTV has become further marginalized, connoisseurs commented. According to Micevski, not only did this process fail to defend the public interest, but it was also abused to relativize what by definition should public interest stand for. The public broadcaster should have been a leader in domestic production, especially in terms of creating children, educational or feature contents. However, according to the former director of MRTV, Petar Karanakov, digitalization brought forth numerous benefits for the public broadcaster. “Digital equipment results in greater capacity to film and cover much more events, thus providing an opportunity for dramatic expansion of all and everything that can be covered and, of course, an even greater opportunity to attain the public interest with full capacity, in particular free of technical and technology limitations. Nevertheless, priorities are determined by editors-in-chief, not by the filming and transmission technology”, he adds.

Internet replaces the television

Television, just as any other media, cannot escape the crisis brought forth by new technologies and democratization in production and marketing, i.e. broadcasting of contents, said representatives from the Media Development Centre. According to them, effects of the blow made by new internet platforms are yet to be felt. “Research shows that only within one year, the leading 30 cable TV channels in the US, on average, have lost 10 percent of their prime time audiences, which implies lower income from advertisements. Audiences move to new internet ‘streaming’ and ‘video on demand’ services, such as Netflix. Netflix is now entering our region, so we need to see what will happen in our country, however, one thing is certain: changes will be inevitable. Although there are opinions that subscription may be prohibitively high for our impoverished population, resulting in Netflix subscriptions mainly among young urban audiences hooked on American TV shows, which can afford such subscription”, says Dejan Georgievski from MDC. Technology is already changing the television, but on the other hand, television is the most powerful among traditional media and has the biggest resources to fight back and adapt to the blow of new technologies and new platforms, Georgiveski was certain.

(This article was developed in cooperation with the Metamorphosis Foundation, as part of the project “Digitalization in Broadcasting in the Republic of Macedonia”, financed by the Independent Journalism Programs from London.)