Poland raises curtain on digital

Gawel plans to invest $245 million in the digital switch

LONDON — Some 17 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Polish pubcaster Telewizja Polska (TVP) is facing yet another revolution: the switch to digital.

“Our big challenge is to maintain a balance between creating quality content and building a strong brand while becoming a modern and digital media company,” says TVP prexy Piotr Gawel, who plans to invest $245 million in the digital switch over five years.

While the Polish Television Council has yet to announce the date when the analog signal will be turned off, TVP launched its first digital channel — TVP Kultura, available via satellite and cable — almost a year ago.

Kultura is a free TV channel focused on highbrow culture, financed through advertising revenues from TVP’s terrestrial channels. It complements TVP’s two existing analog entertainment channels and its regional news web.

“We’re also working on three more digital thematic channels to be launched this year. One will focus on entertainment, the second on film and the third one on sports,” says Gawel, who also has plans for a parliament channel and an information channel.

“Some of these channels will have advertising and some of them are going to be pay TV, but they are not going to be premium channels because we want them to have a high penetration across Poland,” Gawel explains.

While the entertainment channel will broadcast mainly hits from TVP’s entertainment library, the film channel will show Polish arthouse pics.

“We want to make better use of our archive. We’re not going to compete against HBO and Canal Plus,” he adds.

However, as 70% of TVP’s annual budget comes from advertising, the pubcaster does face competition in the terrestrial arena.

To compete with commercial broadcasters such as Polsat and TVN while fulfilling its cultural and educational pubcasting remit, TVP will move most cultural programs to thematic channels. The main terrestrial channels will be reserved for entertainment and information.

“In primetime the audience for high-culture programs is about 1%, maybe 1.5%, which is a great rating for a thematic channel,” says Gawel, who predicts that in the future digital channels will have up to 30% market share. “The main terrestrial channels will struggle to maintain their ratings.”

With the growth of digital channels, Gawel also anticipates the arrival of foreign investors in Polish television.

“Already 80% of the Polish press is owned by international players. A young and immature market like Poland where advertising spend per capita is still far behind the rest of Europe, offers an excellent investment opportunity,” says Gawel. “I see competition as a good thing as it improves the quality of the content.”