Latvijas Radio is on the verge of bankruptcy and the state-run television service is in tough shape, too. Users of both media should expect that the next several months will bring drastic changes to the scope and quality of programming.
Although both services have been saddled with financial troubles and political controversies during the past years, the government’s decision late last year to slash 25 percent of their financing forced both radio and TV managers to lay out some unpopular choices.
Latvijas Televīzija, for example, said it would cancel its participation in the Eurovision Song Contest and end production of the popular homemade soap opera, “Neprāta cena.” The radio service, meanwhile, suggested that it would have to trim programs and cut back on the range of its signal, especially to rural areas.
For Latvijas Radio, at least, things have very quickly gone from bad to worse.
Listeners no doubt have heard the frequent announcements—some of them a bit hyperbolic—warning that a cutback in programming threatens the ability of the public to be informed. As if to underscore the point, the radio service on Jan. 20 was called before the National Radio and Television Council (Nacionālā radio un televīzijas padome) to offer a plan that could prevent its bankruptcy in the face of at least LVL 700,000 in debt. On the same day, Aigars Semēvics, director general of the radio service, appeared to fall on his sword and announced his resignation.
Latvijas Radio and Latvijas Televīzija both receive financing from the government budget. They augment that by selling advertising time. The trouble with cutting state financing is that the difference cannot be made up by selling more advertising. In times of economic hardship, one of the first things businesses look at trimming is their advertising budgets—and that’s already happening.
Among ideas floated to stop the bleeding at Latvijas Radio are ending the Radio NABA service, dropping the Latvian Radio Choir and limiting the signals for Radio 3 and Radio 4 to just the Rīga area.
Just what and who will get the ax will be a decision left to Dzintris Kolāts, who was named Jan. 21 to take over from Semēvics. Kolāts has been head of Latvian State Radio’s news department. The National Radio and Television Council approved Kolāts on a 5-0 vote with three members, including chairman Ābrams Kleckins, abstaining. (For reasons not entirely clear but unsettling nonetheless, the council also briefly considered the controversial Edvīns Inkēns for the job. Inkēns, some readers might remember, once was a member of the Saeima and, at the same time, a television journalist—an ethical dilemma that did not seem to bother him. Among his accomplishments was “uncovering” the dubious pedophilia scandal of eight years ago that brought down a number of politicians.) The conservative opposition party New Era (Jaunais laiks) on Jan. 22 submitted a bill to the Saeima demanding the removal of Kleckins from the council, blaming him for not keeping tabs on the financial condition of Latvijas Radio. The party also wants LVL 500,000 to be transferred to Latvijas Radio from the LVL 28 million reportedly held by the Latvian State Radio And Television Centre, the state-run company that controls the country’s radio and TV transmitting facilities.
I would not want to be in Kolāts’ shoes right now. According to a report on Latvijas Radio, among options he is considering to save the service is laying off about 100 staff. The popular Radio 2 service also faces the possibility of a weaker signal.
Some of these decisions probably should have been made many months ago. Knowing it was going to face a tough year, why didn’t Latvijas Radio look at eliminating or collapsing some of its services? In a country of 2.3 million people, is it really necessary for state-run radio to provide four different national channels? If you have lost count, they are the news and public affairs oriented Radio 1; the all-Latvian music service Radio 2; the classical music service Radio 3; and the Russian-language Radio 4. Latvijas Radio also transmits Radio NABA, a college music service owned by the University of Latvia.
Between the two of them, Radio 1 and Radio 2 claim more than 30 percent of the listening audience in Latvia, according to Baltic Media Facts data. Radio 3 and Radio 4 claim about 5-6 percent. Couldn’t Latvijas Radio get by with perhaps just two channels?
Latvijas Televīzija also faces financial challenges, but not as bad as the radio service. Among its most dramatic moves—no doubt playing to the emotions of viewers—was announcing that Latvia would not participate in the Eurovision Song Contest and that production of “Neprāta cena” would come to an end.
However, fans of both shows have some hope. By not participating in Eurovision, LTV would have saved about LVL 120,000. But last week the European Broadcasting Union, which organizes Eurovision, decided to help out Latvia with a reduced participation fee, while Latvijas Krājbanka and the convenience store chain Narvesen announced they would come up with the money. The song contest will take place in May in Moscow. Only a few months ago, some commentators in Latvia were suggesting the country should not participate in Eurovision as a protest against Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
The producer of “Neprāta cena,” a soap opera set in a Latvian hotel and starring such personalities as actor Uldis Dumpis and singer Mārtiņš Freimanis, earlier this month turned to fans for financial help. The show costs about LVL 3,000 per episode to produce, Latvijas Televīzija spokesperson Ieviņa Ancena told Latvians Online. The producer is asking fans to donate one lat each in an effort to raise LVL 160,000 by the end of the month so that filming of the show may continue.
Among other measures, LTV also said it would cancel the Russian-language news program “Strana LV” and pull its correspondents from Brussels and Moscow.
This is not the first time Latvia’s two public broadcasters have been under the gun, but this is clearly the worst we have seen. Commercial broadcasters (and, in several cases, their foreign owners) would love to see the state-run media disappear so that they can divide up what’s left of the pie. A number of politicians also wouldn’t mind exerting more pressure over public broadcasters. I have lost count on how many times the heads of Latvijas Radio and LTV have changed over the years.
Latvia’s public broadcasters are a vital public service. Unlike the country’s commercial broadcasters, they are charged with telling Latvia’s story to Latvia. Sure, they could do a better job, but slashing their funding will not improve them.
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