As Greece’s economic crisis continues to drag on, and the country faces another round of heated battles with its European creditors, the government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party has set its sights on the nation’s embattled media groups in its attempts to implement wide-ranging reforms.
More than 25 years after the liberalization of the TV sector opened up the airwaves for private broadcasters, government regulators are finally looking to introduce commercial licenses, scrapping a system of “temporary licenses” that has allowed channels to broadcast without paying for the use of frequencies.
But with media stakeholders up in arms over a politicized process that would halve the number of private TV stations currently on the air, the future for an already reeling industry looks bleak.
“The state of Greek TV is at its worst since the private broadcasting era started,” says Phaedra Vokali, vice president of the Assn. of Greek Independent Audiovisual Producers.
Few would argue against the need for an industry overhaul. Even before the start of an economic crisis that has pushed the country into a tailspin, Greece’s private broadcasters were deeply in debt, benefiting from close ties with banking institutions whose sweetheart loans masked deeper financial turmoil. Past governments have also let media barons off the hook. In February, Alternate Finance Minister Tryfon Alexiadis told parliament that the country’s TV stations owed the government more than €34 million ($37.4 million) in unpaid taxes and fines levied by the Greek National Council for Radio and Television (ESR).
The new legislation calls into question whether the government is looking for reform or simply realignment. Critics have noted that the new licenses will be issued through a fast-track process that bypasses the ESR, raising questions about transparency. In a statement after the media bill was passed in February, the Assn. of Private TV Channels criticized the “highly authoritarian” process. Vokali agrees, saying the government is “trying to redistribute this very small pie” in the interests of its political allies.
|Greek TV by the Numbers|
|18+||Major broadcasters, private and state-run|
|$37m||Amount of unpaid taxes and fines that stations owe the government|
|$611m||TV ad spending in 2015|
|$1.46b||Total media ad spending in 2015|
Yet it’s a small pie that seems only to be shrinking. While the new law would make room for only four private broadcasters, the country’s private nets are already in dire straits. Employees of Mega Channel, one of the country’s biggest media concerns, walked out after it was announced the company was slashing salaries by up to 20%. Thousands have lost their jobs since the onset of the crisis. The cuts came in the wake of last year’s arrest of media magnate Leonidas Bobolas on charges of tax evasion. Bobolas’ family is the largest shareholder in Mega, and the mogul was released on bail only after he paid $1.9 million in back taxes.
Bizzers are guardedly optimistic about the return last spring of pubcaster ERT, which was abruptly shuttered in 2013 by the previous government, accusing it of waste and mismanagement. Several months after returning to the airwaves, the pubcaster issued an open call for new programming — a faint ray of light for the struggling industry.
A bigger boost would come from the enforcement of a law mandating that TV stations invest 1.5% of their profits into the production of local programming. For years private broadcasters have avoided the tax through a legal loophole, arguing that they weren’t obliged to pay because they weren’t officially licensed.
Before his Syriza party swept to power more than a year ago, Tsipras promised to challenge the powerful oligarchs who control a private media that has been openly critical of his government’s economic policies and its handling of the European bailout talks. The prime minister has spoken about breaking the country’s “triangle of sin,” a term he’s used to describe the ties and interests of media moguls, bank barons and corrupt politicians.
On the surface, at least, his left-leaning coalition has tried to fight back. The arrest of Bobolas was trumpeted at the time as a victory for the reform-minded ruling party. But it remains the only such triumph to date.
If and when commerical licenses are finally issued, they would close the local-programming loophole and go a long way toward infusing some much-needed coin into the industry, according to Vokali. Still, she notes, that seems far off for struggling producers today. For now, “It’s not looking any brighter,” she says.