MONEY IS NOT EVERYTHING
Why the TV news? Why do I force myself to watch television, especially the public television of Serbia, when, thanks to the internet and VPN technology, I could be watching BBC?
Why do I, as soon as my eyes are open, turn on the TV? The reason is simple. I love the television as a medium. I grew up following RTB, I mean literally grew up. And not just as a viewer. My father, a journalist, used to take me to the place where the first headquarters of the former Radio Television Belgrade was. I remember the first news van, everything was going live, and I would stand on the gallery and watch as Radivoje Lola Djukić and his crew broadcast the "Service programme" with great skill. It was black and white magic, with excellent camera men and actors. Once, I recollect, the RTB managed to film a TV drama using only a few frame shots, which was less than in a Hitchcock movie. It was a masterpiece of a camera man Voja Lukić.
What happened to the public television service, what happened to the television, which was also part of my life for so many years? To put it simply, it shared in the fate of Serbia. But, today, Serbia is changing a lot faster than the public service television.
Why is it that Serbia as a state has no plan for the development of the public television service? How should the public service television look like in the next ten years? What kind of a public television service will be needed in Serbia in ten years? These are all the questions that will be talked about in these TV analyses.
The public television service yesterday, today and tomorrow
The burden of reforming the public television service should not lay solely upon the shoulders of the employees and management. The state is responsible for the public television service, and should create the prerequisites for a modern and efficient public television service, whose main function would not be exploitation by a narcissistic management in the viewer rating competition with private televisions. A public television service must achieve quality, sometimes with a lower rating, but a higher influence.
Is this the kind of public service television we currently have? Unfortunately, not yet. The state should give its assistance in realizing a social programme, in order to unburden RTS of a too high number of employees, and also to give its specific instructions on what should the public service television have. Before I begin a kind of analysis of the June efforts of the thousands of RTS employees, I would just like to touch on a few more points.
As a member of the family who, as a whole, had, as it was known in socialistic times, large amount of "work effort" put into the RTS, I always feel sad when I see the way things are done now, being sure that there is room for improvement and wiser management. And, most importantly, the television should be more "televised". Secondly, we need to be aware that, as the so called "welfare state" is dying out, the same thing is happening to the concept of "public television service", which was, in those analogue times, the means to teach, entertain and inform the public.
Today, in the digital era, the possibilities are endless, which is why the public television service needs to adapt to the modern times. The quality should outweigh the viewer ratings, which was not the case in our country, owing to the general conditions, as well as the personal ambitions and vanities of the RTS management. More and more young people are getting their information from the social networks. Next month we will take a look at the results of a research in connection with platforms like "Netflix", "Amazon Prime" and the Balkan variant, "Pickbox". We know that cable infrastructure covers almost 70% of Serbia, providing internet coverage, and that the television is less and less watched in the classical way, by turning your TV set on and, in the words of a former great editor, and later TV CEO, Nenad Ristić, "letting the screen illuminate the room until you fall asleep". The TV set used to be not only the center of family life, but also, in the first days of Yugoslavia, it was the center of social life. Today, owing to the new technology, watching television is more and more individual experience, happening across mobile platforms, and the public, the viewers, are more and more able to create their own programme and schedule.
However, let us turn our attention back to the programme in June of 2017.
On the past and the loss of courage and critical viewpoint
At the beginning of the month, I learned that the BBC, which is the "public service television role model", produced a costumed drama "Charles III", later nominated for the "Tony" award. The drama premiered in April of 2014, in a London theatre. It is a part thriller, part drama, but mostly it is political. Its production followed after a large scandal, when it was discovered that the most famous Murdock's tabloid hacked the voice mail of certain people. Under the public pressure, Murdock had to shut the tabloid down.
Only 3 years later, the drama received its BBC treatment.
Short synopsis: Charles, at last, becomes the king. The Government formulates a law which entails, among other things, putting the limitations on the freedom of the press. King Charles is merely expected to sign it, without any constitutional power to change anything. Charles refuses to do so, the reasons being that the law is in deep opposition to his belief that the press should be free and his opinion that it is a step towards censorship. At some point Charles dissolves the Parliament and makes a date for new elections. The Great Britain is in chaos ,and William, Kate and the Prime Minister make a request for Charles to abdicate, with the most interesting turn of events being that Kate becomes Charles's greatest enemy and the chief architect of the "rebellion" against him. Charles abdicates, and William and Kate become the King and Queen. The lineage is preserved.
I did not write this in order to glorify the British democracy or BBC. While watching this drama, I wondered where did these political, or, for that matter, contemporary dramas disappear from the public television service of Serbia? Imagine for a moment that RTS produced a drama where Djindjić survives the assassination, what would his government look like or who would his allies be, or if RTS made anything remotely similar to the series "House of Cards". A series, which, as we can now see, has its Serbian version, but in real life, where everyone is trying to make Vučić pay for his "loyalty" and support for the new Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabić.
Once, these kind of series and dramas existed. In the "socialist times", Lola Djukić produced the "Gradjanina Pokornog[The Obedient Citizen]", "Crni Sneg[The Black Snow]", series that were, I emphasize, in those times, very provocative. Somewhere along the way that kind of courage was lost.
The public television service slowly goes into history down the easy road, making series based on the scribbling of Mirjam, so we can freely pose the question why would any Turkish series have a more deteriorating effect on the state of the culture of Serbian public from the series based on the scribbling of Mirjam? Even if we take a look at the series like "Bolji život[A Better Life]" or "Vruć vetar[Hot Air]" we can find more social criticism in them than in any series on today. But, once again, we turn to the past. RTS is producing TV series "Nemanjići[Nemanjić Dynasty]". And I wonder, if this series is supposed to be powerful, it will require a lot of money. Does the RTS have that money? I do not think so. If it had the money, there would be enough of it for a social programme, since, without the reduction in the number of employees, the 150 dinars of monthly subscription and the money from the state budget are not enough for the big projects.
The present on cheap television
The best example of this was the episode of the programme "Upitnik" on the topic of "What is the kind of new government we need". It aired on 6th of June. There were only 4 politicians present, Marija Obradović, vice-president of SPP, Branko Ružić, vice-president of SPS, Tamara Tripić, vice-president of DP, and Čedomir Jovanović, president of LDP. Politicians from 4 different political parties, yelling and insulting each other, so that in the end, even the anchor of the show, Olivera Jovićević, could not restrain them. Instead of professional experts who could, each from his own viewpoint, analyze what kind of government is needed and what it should focus on, the National Assembly atmosphere was transferred into the TV studio. And, in the end, did we get our answer? No. I was especially surprised by the verbal aggression of the vice-president of DP. With that kind of behavior, it is hard to believe that this political party will make a comeback and reestablish the position it once had.
What happened to the documentary and investigative journalism
Watching all of these shows in the studio, I kept wondering what happened to the documentary and investigative TV journalism. Once, long ago, there were programmes like "Vidici[Horizons]" and "Reflektor[Spotlight]", where the journalists would go into the field, searching for answers and talking to people. Those were real short documentaries. Traces of such journalism can be found in programmes produced by "TV Mreža[TV Network]", but that is a foreign production. Is this the way in which the public television service solves the issue of depressive topics? Let someone else cover that, so that we do not have to, especially since it is frowned upon by those "upstairs"? Is there someone at RTS who uses a stopwatch to measure the coverage given to this or that person, using that as the main argument in the debates on the public presence?
Can you remember the last time that RTS initiated a coverage of a burning issue? It is my impression that on morning meetings journalists and editors first read the newspapers, next listen to the radio broadcast of "Novosti dana[Daily news]" at 3 p.m., and only then do they start to "put together" the news. When you watch any coverage in the news, you immediately get the impression that you already saw, heard or read something about that subject.
It is beyond my understanding why the 7.30 p.m. news need to be so sterile and flat, like the old newsreels in "Filmske novosti[Film News]" that we used to watch in cinemas, and TVD3 has much more freedom. Watching the news at 7.30 p.m. you feel like you are reading Službeni glasnik, while in TVD3 you can still hear about a contemporary issue or someone's personal opinion.
Imagine the revolution caused by the practice of the same team of people putting together and anchoring the main news programme for years, from Monday to Friday, a common practice in the global television networks and public service televisions. In RTS this is impossible for any number of reasons. This reflects on the programme. In seven days there are seven different approaches to making the news.
At the same time, I recommend an experiment. Turn off the picture during the main news programme and just listen to the audio. It will make for a very solid radio news programme. The picture, which is the essence of television, has been relegated to a back seat.
The worst feature is the hidden advertising in informational programme. That is how we could find out in "Jutarnji program[The Morning Show]" from 9th of June that Tunisia is a wonderful destination for a summer holiday. Everything is lovely and spectacular, both the tourists and the journalist are extremely happy and satisfied. Not even a single mention of a potential terrorist threat. They should have at least marked the coverage with TVC in one picture corner. As it was, when something is done so blatantly "covertly", their credibility should be in question concerning some other coverages too.
The show that has been going strong for years is "Žikina šarenica[Žika's Mosaic]". I watch the show, and I think that Žika Nikolić is the most successful successor of the legendary anchor, journalist Bane Vukašinović. My only problem is when I see Žika and his editor Olivera Kovačević receive a reward from the same man conducting the show orchestra from week to week, as well as being the organizer of the said manifestation and reward ceremony.
At the same time I find the obligatory naming of TV CEO, programme CEO and editor in a show's end credits distasteful. Have you ever seen a global TV network that does that? I have not. Although a recent rule, established by Aleksandar Tijanić, it is my opinion that time has come to end this practice. It looks distasteful, and I doubt the viewers even care.
Far from the role of the public television service
The coverage of the public television service during the elections on Kosovo was meek at best. Not on the Election Day itself, but during the electoral campaign. The Serbian List was inconspicuously favourized, but there was no information on who was who on the list, why were they specifically chosen for the list, what is the plan and the part of their political agenda. We heard more about Haradinay than Kurti, and the results were there for all to see.
If we were evaluating RTS channels according to the criteria of being the closest to the role of the public television service, it is certain that the closest one would be Drugi program RTS[RTS Two]. It is a mighty shame that whenever the channel Two finds its "rhythm", and the viewers get used to it, the obligatory broadcasts of the National Assembly quickly follow and unbalance everything. This is why it is very important to create a separate parliamentary TV channel as soon as possible, which would broadcast not only the sessions of the National Assembly, but also the sessions of councils and other Assembly political bodies. That would provide the viewers with insight into the procedure of passing laws and council discussions.
Why is RTS1 far from fulfilling the role of the public television service? And, to be more precise, especially in the area of news programme, which is edited in a "flat" and "playing it safe" way? For example, the fire in the Vinča waste depot burrowed its way into "Beogradska hronika[Belgrade Info]" only after several days of coverage of this ecological disaster in all media. Would it not be better if the public television service was among the first to report about the efforts to put this fire out and to inform the public that, at least up till now, there was no immediate danger to the Belgrade citizens' health? Apart from the foul smell, which was indeed a problem.
However, that was not the only time that the RTS news programme was "limping".
In the TVN 2 the news about the Gypsy boy who was beaten by his peers for wanting to hold up a Serbian flag was merely glossed over. Television is a vision, a piece of news that deserves much more of a social engagement than a few lines of text. The message was, here, we said something about it and no one can say that we did not, but it is not really important how we did it. The form is satisfied.
The announcement of the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić on the choice of the new Prime Minister did not get any better treatment. Only a broadcast of the press conference.
Announcement of the choice of the new Prime Minister is a significant political event in any country. The third most significant event, after the elections and passing of the budget vote. And, instead of a studio filled with experts, government and opposition representatives, all of whom would, before and especially after, discuss the President's choice - nothing. Again the playing it safe scenario, in order not to stir up any hornets' nest, since that is the recipe for never making a wrong move.
Why is this so, why always the easy road, I cannot explain. The public television service should raise questions and initiate debates in the Serbian society.
Two chapters opened in the negotiations with EU, on copyright and customs. Apart from the reporting style, not even a word more. Is it possible that only on TV N1 they can bring a guest that can competently explain to the public what that means? The EU Info Center regularly organizes press conferences on chapters in order to inform the journalists on the procedure of joining. Even in the next few days, the EU center is organizing several discussions, for example, on the issue of council management. And again this news is shared by only a single television network. The public television service would be the most logical choice. But it is not them.
When most of the journalists do not understand the chapters, how can we expect the citizens to understand them?
I am not a proponent of agitprop propaganda, but it is incredible that the public television service does not have a series on the EU negotiation chapters, their advantages and disadvantages, the goals of Serbia in the negotiations, as sure as it is impossible that there is not enough money to send a two member crew into a neighboring EU country to see how they solved the similar problems that Serbia has to deal with.
Success and failures
That something eventually can be achieved is demonstrated by the programme "Upitnik[Question Mark]" on the topic of the lawsuit against the 19 countries, NATO members, for the bombardment and the consequences of the bombardment with depleted uranium. It was broadcast on 13th of June. The guests were attorney Srdjan Aleksić, legal representative for the citizens, prof. dr Danica Grujičić, one of the leading proponents of the thesis that the NATO bombardment is the reason of the major rise in malignant tumor cases in Serbia, , prim. dr Verica Jovanović, temporary CEO of the Batut Institute and Milan Antonijević from Yucom. Calmly and without tension, a dialogue between the proponents of the thesis that the rise in cancer cases in Serbia was caused, among other factors, by NATO use of depleted uranium and the CEO of the Batut Institute, who statistically proved that the rise is in the boundaries of European average. But, most importantly, a professionally covered topic, an informed editor and anchor, and a well guided episode.
If the end result was so good because of the lack of the presence of the daily politics and politicians, I cannot say. But it is obvious that when there is will, there is a way. Serbian politicians could learn a thing or two from these guests of "Upitnik". But this one success is overshadowed by several failures and missed opportunities.
The Belgrade Philharmonic organized a concert in the open for the first time in its history, which was attended even by the famous Zubin Mehta. Is it really possible that the public television service can allow itself to miss such an opportunity for a live broadcast, and for citizens of Serbia to see something beautiful and important? According to some reports, over 20.000 people were present. Both impressive and encouraging. I will just take a moment to remind you that even RTS on its Channel Three broadcasts foreign footage of similar concerts. and now, when something like that happens in our own backyard, the event does not exist. I can understand that copyright, as well as all of the other performer rights, might pose a problem, but is that not the role of the public television service, to bring the major cultural manifestations to the general public?
This concert will be the subject of discourse for a long time to come, but it would certainly get even more attention if there was a live broadcast. A mighty shame, since this was not something that happens every day.
But, on the other hand, it is easy to cancel a programme. After 15 years of existence, the programme "Trezor[The Vault]" was canceled. It was a rare opportunity for the viewers to see that the history of RTS does not start with every new CEO, but that it has a history worthy of Serbia. The explanation that there is a special Trezor channel on IPTV Telekom is weak. Just another evidence that every new management that takes over RTS draws a line in the sand and makes it as if the history starts with them.
As I mentioned before, there is no greater challenge for national televisions than elections, passing the budget vote or inaugurations. All of these are special challenges for which serious TV hire the best professionals, not only as anchors. The choice of an editor is much more important, or otherwise known as a producer in the rest of the world. ( In our country, a producer is the person who takes care of the finances, organizes crews and journalists, and facilitates transportation. In the rest of the world, a producer is a person who creates the programme and does the work of the editor.)
But let us get back on course.
After many years, the newly elected President decided to make a gala celebration, invite guests and return the Serbia Palace to its former glory, which it had as a former palace of Federation. The quantity and quality of the gala celebration, of which more will be said, is not the subject of my analysis. My subject is the television broadcast.
RTS has a long standing tradition of this broadcast, that started with Dimitrije Stančulović, continued with Momo Martinović, and is currently under the care of Veselin Grozdanić. It is interesting that RTS, as far back as when it was called RTB, had a strong technical crew of engineers and camera men. I remember that the French were very satisfied with the production of the live broadcast from Dubrovnik, when the coverage van from Belgrade were transported by a ferry from Cavtat to the port under the city walls. The broadcast done for Jacques Chancel, a joint venture between TVZ and TVB, was very well done. But let us get back to the broadcast of the inauguration. On the technical side, it was a very good job. On the reporting side, it was very weak. And I mean from the anchor in the studio to the reporter in the Serbia Palace.
If I would have to give out the "Oscar" of the month, it would go to the reporter of RTS who asked Franco Frattini: "How much relevant for the relations between Italy and Serbia is the fact that twelve ancient Roman rulers were born on the territory of Serbia". I am certain that Frattini in all of his political carrier was never asked such a deep intellectual question. And, by the way, let us agree if there were 12 or 17, and on which days is it 12, and on which 17? Is it good journalism that a reporter interviews Rogozin in English, or that another reporter ends her interview with Kolinda in a clumsy mix of Serbian and Croatian expression of gratitude.
The questions posed to the guests were run of the mill, without any edge or at the least some polemics.
Near the end of the broadcast, I had a heated Twitter discussion with one of the editors at RTS. My objection was that when we see on the screen President Vučić who is walking through the halls, and when he is suddenly approached by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who greets him and leaves, the events that we see should be mentioned by the commentator. However, the said commentator in that precise moment is "prattling" the assigned text about the hall in which the guests currently are. To my objection why at the least between two commas the mentioned reporter did not insert a line, "and the Hungarian Prime Minister greets Vučić", since that was the image in the screen, the answer I received was, "Well, we reported on Orban's arrival and interviewed him. Who ever gives a report of a guest leaving?". Now, there is the essential problem of the editors on RTS, their disrespect for the screen image both in live broadcast and in a coverage. The image shows one thing, and the text goes in the opposite direction. Neither BBC, nor anyone else can help them with this problem, it is simply so. And this started long, long time ago, when one of the editors of the news segment said that the so called "natural sound" in coverages is unnecessary, only the reporter's voice and the image. I explain to my students that the television coverage is like a small film, and that, unlike the other media, they have the option of experimenting with the image, sound and the text. Unfortunately, very few reporters on RTS does this. But take a look at the coverages on HRT or RTL. A completely different story, at least as far as the coverage dramaturgy goes.
Although Serbia will have a new government, and although the said government will be scrutinized for 100 days, each of its actions carefully monitored, RTS is moving to its summer programme schedule. What does that mean? To the untrained eye, more movies and entertainment. And the present? The present will have to wait until 1st of October.
And, in the end, a few words about the news we will probably never see.
Social networks have been humming for days about the initiative of a hundred families situated on the Adriatic Sea offering free seaside holiday to the families from the whole region who have children with development disabilities. The initiative started in Postir on the island of Brač under the slogan "Money is not everything". Is it possible that there is not enough innovativity and money to send a two men RTS crew to Brač? Truth be told, unlike other TV crews, the RTS one is never composed of only two members, but more on that in a month.