Bitter political infighting at Poland's TVP threatens the future of one of Eastern Europe's last remaining dominant public broadcasters
When the eight members of the supervisory board of the Polish public service broadcaster TVP showed up at the station on 16 September they had a nasty surprise. The station's director, Piotr Farfal, wouldn't let them in the door.
Freshly appointed in late July after the terms of the previous board members expired, the board was tipped that day to fire Farfal, a 32-year-old lawyer, former member of an extreme right-wing association, and writer for skinhead publications. Farfal was appointed provisional director of TVP in December, when the previous supervisory board sacked the station's management, blaming them for the red tape they said was making the station inefficient.
Barred from the TVP offices, the board members convened at a Warsaw law firm but were unable to vote on Farfal's sacking because one member was absent. On Saturday the board met again, this time voting to sack Farfal and his management. The board then chose one of its members, Boguslaw Szwedo, a nominee of the Law and Justice Party, to succeed Farfal.
But when Szwedo came to work today, 21 September, the receptionist refused to give him a pass to enter the building, saying Farfal had so ordered. TVP is now in a state of chaos. Farfal says that the board's decision to fire him and his team is illegal. Szwedo says that he won't use force to go to work.
The infighting is the icing on the cake in an ongoing battle for control over TVP between two political factions: a coalition favoring reform of the financing system and a nationalist camp fighting to safeguard the station's status quo. But while politicians keep squabbling, TVP, one of the last public service broadcasters in the region still commanding the highest audience share nationwide, is foundering. Sick of the political tussles over a station 50 percent financed from taxpayers' pockets, viewers are turning away from TVP in droves.
TVP has swum in turbulent waters over the past two years, since the centrist Civic Platform came to power. The station is financed through a combination of advertising and license fees, paid (when they do it) by all TV and radio set owners. Last year, the party declared its commitment to overhauling the station's funding model and in spring 2008 proposed to curtail the power of the treasury minister to fire the station's board and management in certain situations. The bill also exempted various social categories such as the unemployed and pensioners from paying the license fee. Approved in April 2008 by the Sejm, the lower house of parliament, the bill was then vetoed by President Lech Kaczynski.
Civic Platform came back this year with a new bill and the backing of the opposition Democratic Left Alliance, proposing now to scrap the license fee entirely and replace it with state budget money. Slammed by artists, journalists, and the right-wing opposition, the legislators approved the bill only for the conservative president to once again use his veto. If, as expected, parliament is not able to overturn the veto in a vote later this month, the whole legal process surrounding TVP will go back to square one.
TVP's entire recent history is a series of political feuds. Most appointments to the station boards and management have been politically motivated, including that of Farfal, who before his appointment as director had been propelled onto the supervisory board by the right-wing League of Polish Families party in 2006.
ON THE BRINK
Revenues from the 45-euro annual license fee shrank this year as many households stopped paying when they heard that the fee would be dropped. At the moment only half of households, according to the most optimistic estimates, pay their license fee.
Advertising revenue is also shrinking as a result of the general decline in spending triggered by the economic crisis. The quick solution Farfal found was to sack as of this month some 500 employees, or about 10 percent of the station's staff, including more than 120 journalists.
With thinned financial and human resources, programming is deteriorating fast, allowing private competitors to steal viewers and ad budgets. In general, the audiences of all the largest TV channels in Poland have been going down in the past two or three years, chiefly as a result of increasing fragmentation of the media offering, particularly due to the entrance of new digital channels on the market.
In mid-2009, TVP's first channel was still leading the ratings with a nationwide audience share of 21.3 percent, down from 22.6 percent in 2008. But its position is seriously being shaken by commercial TVN (TVNN.WA), which is leading in the key target group of viewers between 16 and 50 years of age in urban areas, with a 22 percent share, almost 10 points better than TVP1.
The combined nationwide audience for TVP's two channels has gone from almost 47 percent in 2002 to 40 percent today. That is not a massive drop compared with other countries in the region, such as Hungary, where the public service station went from holding a monopoly on viewership to 10 percent of the audience within five years in the 1990s. Worryingly, though, TVP lost its steam within a much shorter period, losing viewers at an alarming rate in the past two years according to data from people-meter agency AGB Nielsen. This is a sign that worse is yet to come.
It's turning out to be a critical year for public television in Poland, as expected, but it's not likely to end well for the broadcaster. The license fee model has been compromised, the station's image is besmirched, advertisers have been scared off, and the station's disenchanted viewers are turning to other media. We have all the ingredients for a quick plummet into obscurity.