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German channels threaten local Austrian TV

Locals fight back with homegrown programming

VIENNA – The entry of the far-right Freedom Party into Austria’s coalition government in February may have been an anathema to the rest of Europe, but for the commercial terrestrial TV sector — relegated to the back burner for decades — prospects are looking up.

ATV, a private Austrian cable channel that launched nationally just eight months ago, is positioning itself to be first in line when new frequencies are distributed by the government next year.

Tillmann Fuchs, ATV general manager, is optimistic — up to a point. “I see more willingness and more power to change things, but frankly, I don’t see more know-how,” he says.

ATV, for example, is allowed three fewer days annually for broadcasting commercials than powerhouse pubcaster ORF, which is also funded by viewer fees.

But for both ATV and ORF, the real competition lies not within Austria’s borders but beyond.

Some 35 German-language channels are available to Austrian viewers with cable or satellite — and in alpine Austria, that means 80% of TV households.

The solution is more Austrian programming.

ORF introduces its own reality TV show this fall, “Taxi Orange,” and is preparing its first soap for fall 2001. Young audiences are a prime target, with a top-40 program on ORF and inhouse dating gameshows on the agenda for both stations.

ATV is in co-production discussions with Netherlands-based UPC, should the expanding cabler go ahead with plans to launch a Vienna city channel.

ATV, with an under-3% market share compared with ORF’s 49% nationwide, may still be just a thorn in the side, but it’s starting to put up a fight in acquisitions.

While ATV got “Pokemon,” ORF kids buyer Joerg Ruminak says, “We’re hoping to find the same kind of quality without all the commercial tie-ins.” At Mipcom he’ll also be looking out for more interactive programming.

ATV head of acquisitions Roman Rinner says he will be scouring Mipcom for commercial fare: disaster reports, actions series and thrillers.

So far, ATV is the only station to announce its terrestrial ambitions. The question of whether there are enough ad dollars to support a commercial station has kept other potential suitors away.

But, says Fuchs, “When politicians ask me if commercial TV can be successful in Austria, I tell them it can if you want it to be.”

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