Latvian state TV ponders taxing consumers

Who needs Latvijas Televīzija? If a proposal by Uldis Grava stays afloat, television viewers in Latvia may start asking this question more and more.

Grava, the ārzemnieks who last year left his job as marketing and affiliate development director at Radio Free Europe to become head of the state-funded Latvijas Televīzija (LTV), has already ruffled plenty of feathers inside and outside the broadcaster’s skyscraper in Rīga.

And now, as he continues to push to improve LTV’s image and programming, Grava has suggested that consumers who buy a new television set should also pay a fee to support the public broadcaster. Call it a luxury tax on those residents of Latvia who can afford a new TV.

Grava suggested the fee during a media seminar Jan. 23, according to Baltic News Service.

The proposal isn’t really new and, compared to how public service broadcasters are financed in other European countries, is a small step in the direction of greater public participation in funding LTV. It’s a proposal that could either provide the broadcaster with much-needed income, or make folks wonder why LTV is needed if commercial broadcasters providing “free” programming are available.

For readers outside the United States, the notion of a public service broadcaster is quite familiar. The Australian Broadcasting Corp., British Broadcasting Corp. and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. are just some examples, and each has a different way of getting the money it needs to operate.

In the United Kingdom, an annual TV license of GBP 112 (about USD 185) brings in more than GBP 2.5 billion (about USD 4.1 billion). In return, the BBC doesn’t take commercial advertising. Yet some critics are pushing for abolishing the license, suggesting that those who want to watch BBC could instead subscribe to its service.

Australia’s ABC receives most of its funding from the federal budget. Canada’s CBC gets half of its income from the Parliament, the rest coming from commercial advertising and other sources.

However, in the United States, the private and nonprofit Public Broadcasting Service is a minor player in a market dominated by several commercial networks, not to mention cable or satellite channels. PBS, which is an association of independent “public” TV stations, gets most of its funding from viewer “memberships” and grants, including from the private nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, set up by Congress in 1967. The federal government partially funds the CPB.

Latvijas Televīzija, according to its Web site, gets about 60 percent of its roughly LVL 7 million (about USD 12 million) operating budget from the government, with another 30 percent coming from the sale of advertising. LTV is second in popularity to the commercial Latvijas Neatkarīga Televīzija (LNT).

Like other public service broadcasters, LTV counts among its missions the creation and broadcasting of cultural and educational programming that commercial broadcasters often avoid because they don’t make money. But nothing says public service broadcasters have to be the most popular.

And that’s one of the problems facing Grava’s proposal. No doubt some consumers would balk at the idea of paying a fee to support LTV when they buy a new TV set. A broader requirement that anyone with a television get an annual license would be an even tougher sell in Latvia, where two generations have grown up without such a system.

Yet Latvia needs LTV. Commercial broadcasters don’t have an incentive to offer the kind of programming that a public service broadcaster provides. In a nation where cultural survival is a recurrent theme, LTV should play an important informational and educational role. Sure, LTV could do a better job. Despite being blasted as an outsider who doesn’t understand how Latvia works, Grava is doing his best to improve the broadcaster. But his biggest challenge—convincing the Latvian television audience that they’re getting their money’s worth with LTV—is still ahead.

Hollywood rules

Film critic Dita Rietuma, writing in the daily newspaper Diena, noted with resignation that, in terms of box office receipts and total admissions, the top movies in Latvia last year were all Hollywood productions.

No. 1 on the list, drawing nearly 48,000 viewers and making just a little more than LVL 94,000, was Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Second and third places were taken by Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone and Men in Black II, respectively.

Rietuma contrasts news of last year’s box office results with a reminder that Prime Minister Einars Repše was set to pull the rug out from under the Latvian film industry. In the end, the prime minister was convinced to give the movie business a subsidy of about LVL 630,000 this year, just a slight cut from last year.

In the courts

Full-court press?: Diena kept Latvia’s judicial system busy during the month. Latvia’s Constitutional Court has agreed to hear the newspaper’s complaint that two parts of the criminal code regarding defamation of public officials and political candidates are unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Rīga Mayor Gundars Bojārs plans to sue the newspaper after it reported that the State Revenue Service had supposedly investigated him for conflict of interest involving the Port of Riga’s purchase of the ferry Baltic Kristina, according to a Rīga City Council press release. In addition, the mayor plans to ask the state prosecutor to charge the newspaper with criminal libel under the same law that the paper is challenging in the Constitutional Court.

Mobile dainas

Dial-a-daina: Lursoft IT, the company that has cornered the online data services market in Latvia, announced Jan. 30 that it’s expanding its WAP offerings. Among them are stories from 31 different Latvian newspapers as well as access to 200,000 dainas. Take a look over your WAP-enabled mobile phone at

Canadian columnists

The view from Canada: Baiba Rubess, formerly of Toronto, has been writing a column for the culture section of Diena for a while. Now comes another Latvian-Canadian. Māra Gulēna, editor of the e-zine Toronto Ziņas, had her first column published Jan. 9. She wrote about the path her Latvian life has taken. Look for her next column in the Feb. 3 edition.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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