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TV Programme Market Report: Eastern European TV Resilient Despite Geopolitical Uncertainty

Ross Biggam reports from the World Content Market in Prague (18-20 February, 2015), which focused on broadcasting, production and distribution of television and digital content in Central and Eastern Europe.

The past decade has seen a number of programme markets crop up in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). There are tales from the mid-90s – probably apocryphal, TV markets are gossipy places – of would-be buyers from former Yugoslav republics turning up at the big global markets in Cannes or LA with an acquisitions budget of $100 per hour and finding it impossible to get a meeting with the major distributors, who understandably were focussing on more lucrative deals with buyers from larger territories. Hence the appeal of a dedicated programme market for Central and Eastern Europe.

world content marketToday, the CEE television landscape has settled down and if anything some territories are outperforming Western Europe. For example, Polish TV advertising grew by 2.4% last year, putting it in the top performing markets in the EU, while the less mature and hence more volatile advertising markets of Romania and Serbia showed around 9% growth.

But that has to be offset against steep decline in Ukraine, for obvious reasons, and in Russia, not helped by some damaging interventions by government to restrict the freedom of media to conduct its business.

And, when considering the capacity of a given nation to sustain a domestic content sector – particularly in the expensive genres of drama and film – the relatively small size of most CEE populations is an obvious inhibiting factor. Bear in mind that the total TV advertising revenues in Estonia are around €25m – not quite enough to produce three episodes of Game of Thrones.

Another variable is the relative position of the local public broadcaster (more accurately, still a state broadcaster in some territories). These are competitive and well-resourced players in Poland, Serbia, Croatia and the Czech Republic, but marginal (audience share in low single figures) in Ukraine or Romania and overly politicised in many territories.

So the announcement at the Prague market by Polish pubcaster TVP2 that it would focus on local drama was therefore a boost to Polish drama producers, but not one that is easily replicated elsewhere in the CEE region.

Russians stay away

Attendance and volume of business in Prague were sharply down on previous years. This market traditionally attracts a big Russian turnout, but many visitors from Russia and neighbouring countries stayed away due to the political situation and, above all, the exchange rate as buying content in dollars became unattractive.

Additionally, demand for drama in Ukraine had dropped in 2014 as viewers turned, understandably enough, to news and factual programming. However, as the political situation had stagnated, with signs of becoming a ‘frozen conflict’, so viewers’ appetite for escapism and entertainment had returned.

Sadly, there was less sign of advertisers returning with the Ukrainian TV advertising market now as low as $100m, around one-sixth of its value in 2008. Nor were the economics of Ukrainian channels helped by the regulators’ (understandable) decision to reclassify Russian content as ‘foreign’ for the purposes of their programme quotas.

Adapting to political and market uncertainty

So far, this is shaping up to be a pretty downbeat report. But in fact my overall impression from my visit to Prague was of a CEE television landscape which is not just resilient but showing a surprising ability to reinvent itself in the face of political and market uncertainty.

A few highlights:

Together with the bright young start-ups pitching ideas for new ways of distributing or selling content (a feature of every programme market, especially in this region), this contributed to a surprisingly upbeat impression on leaving Prague. The geopolitical and economic background is obviously very difficult yet local producers seem determined to play to the region’s strengths – technically sound, good film-making tradition, cheap production base – to compete alongside the big global players.

This may sound like a naively optimistic vision – and we should not forget that programme markets are designed for people to ‘talk up’ the business, and therefore inevitably focus on the deals that get made rather than the projects that never get off the ground – but there is plenty of creative and commercial energy left in Central and Eastern Europe.

Special thanks to Nassima Boudi at Eurodata TV for an outstanding presentation which provided many of the examples in this report.

Ross Biggam is the Director General of the Association of Commercial Television in Europe. He also a Associate Partner on the MeCETES project.

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