Zurab Alasania: Public broadcasting should change as society changes

March 19, Verkhovna Rada adopted the Law on public television and radio broadcasting in Ukraine in the second reading, and lit green light to a public broadcaster. The EU has consistently supported Ukraine in taking these steps. Now the matter is finally put into practice. We talked with Zurab Alasania, director general of the National Television Company of Ukraine, on the future of public broadcasting.

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Zurab Alasania, director general of the National Television Company of Ukraine

  • How long will it take in practice to complete the process of creating and implementing the law on public broadcasting?

I hope it never ends. We need to look at this situation in a slightly different way. “Public” isn’t just about broadcasting; it is about society itself. Our system of broadcasting should change as society changes. We have to educate society and society must educate us. That is a never-ending process. I hope that the legal proceedings will be complete by the end of this year.

  • Does that include the transition from state to public broadcasting?

Absolutely. No matter how much she might like, it is impossible for a woman to deliver a healthy baby after just two months of pregnancy; it takes nine months. It is the same with the development of this law – the formal legal processes will take some time. Informally, we have already been working for a year so far. Until recently we have been spending time getting rid of all of the old and ineffective ways of doing things. Now we have finally started taking steps in the right direction, moving beyond all of our past mistakes.

  • How can the current state system of regional broadcasting be transformed into a real public broadcasting service?

Regional broadcasting should join us first. Each region can independently decide for itself how to develop its own system. All that we require is that there is strictly no ‘dzhynsa’ (paid journalism) or advertorials. Regional broadcasters should forget about such practices – they are remnants of the soviet system that should be eliminated. Regional state media have a tendency to be subordinate to local authorities and cater to their interests. This should be stopped and we will be keeping an eye on this.

  • Public broadcasting has been a key topic of discussion between Ukraine and the EU for many years been. Does the EU support Pershy Natsionalny in creating public broadcasting?

The EU has provided us with great expertise and lobbied the law on public broadcasting. It was not sure if the bill passed in the second reading because of high resistance in the Parliament and regional media. It was then that the EU started to lobby the bill. At all levels, they pressed for enactment. That is why the role of our European partners is significant.

Now, when it became clear that public television in Ukraine will exist, the EU and other international partners are ready to provide financial assistance for the modernization of television equipment.

  • How is the process of creating a public broadcaster going so far?

It is going well. We are holding weekly workshops with the heads of all the TV channels, including regional channels, and everyone is welcome to join in through Skype. Local authorities are having a hard time believing we have come this far. They didn’t believe that the second reading (of the law) would pass. But it did.

The heads of local TV channels used to be like small kings in their regions. They are used to having small salaries, but in turn local authorities protect them, turning a blind eye to what they are doing. So, heads of local TV channels do whatever they want – well, most of them do.

Now they are losing that freedom but gaining true freedom instead: the freedom that is the right of every journalist not to depend on any authority. But they do not really understand the difference yet.

  • Have you started making staff changes in view of the transformation processes you are now facing?

I haven’t started because I don’t have that authority yet. But in two or three months I should get it (laughs). I certainly don’t plan to make changes to regional staff on my own – the heads of local public broadcasters should be selected by the communities they serve. This will be a surprise for them to find out from this interview.

Local community, including the staff of local channel, will be submitting four or five candidates who will be subsequently chosen by Ernst&Young. These services are covered by the grant provided by Council of Europe and Deutsche Welle Akademie.

There are some very professional people associated with local broadcasters, but most employ staff from the Soviet era.

  • How will Ukrainian public broadcasting function? In what format?

We are starting with Pershy Natsionalny, which is now Pershy UA. The second public broadcasting channel will be Cultura TV, which does not currently have a license for broadcasting, but will get it.

The law specifies that public broadcasters must air entertainment programs, talk shows, and even debates. And we are already doing these types of programming. Fortunately the law does not specify exact percentages for content requirements. Currently state television providers must air as much content as ordered by the authorities, which is destroying broadcasting. When a program’s ratings are low, it is clear that something should be changed. Under the current system, we do not have the power to do that.

  • Does that mean that the function of public broadcasting will be to create content that serves the target audience?

This is a tough question. I just came back from Japan. I asked my colleagues how they deal with the fact that some people say, “I don’t like this program,” while others say, “I DO like this program.”

I got a very calm reply: “We listen to everyone, through meetings and through letters. But the final decision is in the hands of the public broadcaster. The people have entrusted us with this job for a term of four years. We were selected as the heads and have the authority to decide what to broadcast.

 

  • Does this mean that each head will determine local content on a case-by-case basis?

Yes. We will do our best. Of course, local broadcasters do not have enough content to broadcast 24 hours per day. They may be broadcasting just 3-4 hours a day, so we are making our archives available to them. They can use these to fill in gaps in their own content. So they will be creating their own content as much as possible. We are reserve all the licenses, all 24 hours for each station.

  • When transforming Pershy Nationalny for public broadcasting are you using any specific EU experience as a model?

There are 79 broadcasters in the EU. Germany, for example, has two, and they are great. I have realised that it is impossible to find a country whose experience can be used as a perfect model for Ukraine. We have to look at the experience of other countries and borrow relevant lessons.

Photo provided by Pershy Nationalny.