The Dirty Secret of Romanian Television

Hey folks, I’m sure some of you might be expecting a lengthy analysis of this week’s elections but honestly I have no desire to get in-depth on this subject at the moment.

Quite honestly the USL is screwed because they’ve just inherited ALL of the mistakes and blunders of the former government PLUS their own screw-ups (Barroso letters *coughcough*) committed over the last 6 months and a GINORMOUS credit card bill is coming due next year in the form of massive repayments to the IMF, World Bank and EU.

A year from now the people of Romania are going to have no one to blame but the USL (and the increasingly loathsome UDMR). Yes, it was a win in the short term for them but if I were a politician I’d much rather be attacking from the minority position right now.

the story of television

Let’s talk about television today instead, specifically television in Romania. I never imagined I’d become an expert on the subject but I have now appeared on TV over a dozen times and I’ve spent hours at the various studios speaking to journalists, cameramen (and women) as well as assistants, producers and make-up folks. And it’s quite an interesting story.

In America, where I come from, television is a business. Here though I’ve come to realize that it’s a Vanity Restaurant (with one exception – see below).

What is a Vanity Restaurant? Well when anyone, and I do mean anyone, gets wealthy enough, you start looking around for new places to invest your money on something that will make your life more pleasurable. If you’ve only got a little extra money you invest it in a Vanity Bar but when you’re truly wealthy you go the extra mile and start a Vanity Restaurant. People have to eat (or drink), right? So why not plow your money into a place where you are the owner? And then all of your friends and associates can come there as well and a good time will be had by all.

This is the Vanity Restaurant, which exists here in Romania as much as in America and most every other country. The problem that inevitably crops up with a Vanity Restaurant though is it almost never makes money. You can call it a “business” all you like but it’s a cutthroat industry with very narrow profit margins and a perishable stock and it’s damn difficult to have quality service and food without insanely high prices. So in order to make it enjoyable for your friends and associates and not scare off people with high prices, the Vanity Restaurant almost always ends up being a loss. Yes, it makes some money but on the books ultimately it’s costing you money. It looks great but it’s fundamentally unprofitable.

This is exactly the situation for every single television channel in Romania with two exceptions. One exception is obviously TVR, the government series of channels, having their own little crisis this year but which are all entirely funded through public monies. They, like the BBC in Britain, don’t have to worry about profitability because they’re a public station. I’ve been to the TVR studio here in Cluj, professionally run and operated but it looks like it’s been airdropped in from 1971. It screams kitsch even though I had to remind myself that at the time of its construction a Sober and Serious Communist actually approved the design.

The other exception is Pro TV, the channel which nursed me through my first years in Romania, being literally the only station I could receive over the air on my ancient East German television. I used to scoff at the idea of “Professional” TV for a network name, what with their hideous domestic “comedies” and the consistent placement of astrological forecasts prominently on their morning news broadcasts. But Pro TV was founded by American business investors and is still operated on a (truly) for-profit basis and their penetration of the Romanian market is astounding. I’ll never forget speaking with a guy who saw me on the Pro TV special by watching it in Spain off of their international satellite feed.

However all of the rest of the channels in Romania, privately owned and theoretically on the air for the purpose for making money, are Vanity Restaurants one and all. Some of them, particularly the Antena group of channels (as well as OTV, etc) are Vanity Channels which serve a distinctly political interest. Other channels are less about the politics but all of them are losing money, all of them. Excluding Pro TV, every single television channel in Romania is losing money.

How is this possible? After all, people in Romania do watch television and it’s not just Pro TV or TVR. It took me a long time figure out what was going wrong. I’ve met a lot of very professional journalists and workers and studio crew and everyone is scurrying around and acting on target as if it were a for-profit business so why are all of these channels losing money?

It turns out the answer is the old devil itself – advertising. All television channels, whether they’re 24-hour news or just re-broadcasting old American shows with Romanian subtitles, have only one way to make money: advertising. People (more likely companies) paying them money to run advertisements in between all of the other stuff is literally the only way for a television channel to make any money. All of the rest of the stuff, from the shows to the staff to the equipment is all an expense.

And Romanian TV channels do carry advertising as anyone can verify. The problem is that literally no one knows who is watching which channels at what time. I’ve never sat in on a meeting where advertising rates are determined but I can tell you with 100% certainty that not one of these Vanity Channels has any earthly idea who is watching their broadcasts.

The way it’s done in America is hideously invasive but ultimately quite effective, known as the Nielsen ratings. Using statistics to provide the best (statistical) samples possible, little electronic devices are attached to certain people’s televisions. Then whenever anyone watches something, instantaneously this information is transmitted to the Nielsen headquarters. This, along with the known demographic information of the viewers in question, lets the various television channels know exactly who is watching their shit.

In other words, in America I am operating Channel X and I can see that I’ve got 54.9% of married women aged 40-45 watching my show in real time. This plus a whole lot of other statistical survey methods lets each and every single television network know exactly who is watching their shows. And this in turn lets them sell advertising at a higher rate. Obviously if you’ve got over half of a particular demographic (married women aged 40-45) watching your show, you can charge a heck of a lot of money to companies who want to advertise to this group.

Here in Romania none of this exists. There are no Nielsen ratings or anything similar to it. The only way anyone here can even guess who is watching is by commissioning a poll from a private firm. These firms are often sycophantic to the channel in question (or the channel’s owner) and thus find a way to massage the data more favorably. But even when it’s ostensibly objective, all they’re doing is a lot of “knock and talks”, which means that respondents are going to skew their responses instinctually, the same way you’d tell a stranger calling you up on the phone that you were watching an educational program on Discovery when in reality you were watching some celebrity gossip show on E! Entertainment.

In other words, even the occasional commissioned surveys are skewed and misleading and 99% of the time there’s not even that. You might as well just lick your finger and stick it out the window when you’re trying to guess who the hell is watching your television network in Romania.

And because you don’t know who is watching, you have no way to accurately establish advertising rates, no way to know which programs are hits or which ones are bombing, no way to know when people get bored (or offended) and switch channels, no way to know which topics your audience is interested in, no way to know what works and what doesn’t and so then the whole thing becomes one giant Vanity Restaurant. It’s shiny and glitzy and a great place to showcase all of the stuff you like but financially it’s a toilet where you end up throwing away gobs and gobs of your money.

So being backstage in a Romanian studio is a bit like one of those Cargo Cult islands. All around you are simulacra of professional, modern television studios, including expensive cameras and insanely expensive editing and production equipment. But everyone’s just going through the motions of a television business without understanding how one works or why they work (or don’t work).

When you’re the viewer sitting at home watching things, it looks pretty good. But behind the scenes, let me tell you, it’s a disaster. I’ve had no fewer than three separate producers from the same network call me in a 24-hour period, each completely unaware that I had already agreed to appear on their channel. I’ve also had network producers find me on Facebook (christ!) literally hours beforehand in their perennial mad dash to get guests in their studios. And this why it’s up to me individually to clear my schedule AHEAD OF TIME when I know something is coming up (USA elections, 1 December, etc) where they’re going to summon me at the last minute to appear.

I know what my niche is (at the moment) and with the sole exception of Pro TV, literally I’m the only one doing any forward thinking and planning when it comes to booking guests (in this case, myself) and not one other network even understands the concept of doing so. I speak Romanian now and I’ve sat in on a dozen frenetic phone calls as some mysterious person in Bucharest screams and yells at the Cluj team to get something done and it’s always at the last minute, always. I sat in the control room of TVR Cluj doing the same thing to their remote unit in Chisinau last week and I thought the guy next to me was going to have a stroke.

It’s always a clusterfuck because nobody at the top knows what they’re doing because it’s not really a for-profit business at all. It’s a Vanity Restaurant (even at TVR because the top boss is a political appointee), where some effete dandy wants to impress his friends and associates by having everything look good but is simultaneously going nuts when he sees the bills come due every month and realizes that he’s losing a ton of money.

Ultimately though, I’m fine with it. Most media owners in Romania are total dicks and I don’t feel sorry for them at all when they lose money. I’m also glad that boring but ultimately far more democratic programming gets on the air, something that would never happen if the networks were solely focused on making a profit.

And it’s that dash of chaos and madness which makes Romania a great place to live, allowing little cracks of fresh air to get in that provide a space for people like me to get The Message out to the totally unknown and unquantifiable audience who may or may not be watching at home.

7 thoughts on “The Dirty Secret of Romanian Television

  1. Sam, you’re pretty much right. Yes, there is GfK Romania, which you might not have known about, but the research reports don’t really matter (as your ready-to-comment readers might think). With very few exceptions, most commercials are traded in a very “Balkan-way” barter-kind-of-business (who is friends with who… if you know what I mean…). In my opinion, the advertising & PR market is pretty much a legal money laundering business in Romania (as I said, with few exceptions, like IT and beverage commercials).


  2. “Excluding Pro TV, every single television channel in Romania is losing money.” And “But Pro TV was founded by American business investors and is still operated on a (truly) for-profit basis and their penetration of the Romanian market is astounding.” Now I wonder, did the same American investors teach them the meaning of “astounding tax fraud”?


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