Pushing and Shoving

1 September 2011, 15:25

The National Radio and Television Council (NRTC) presented the Inter Group, allegedly connected to SBU Chief Valeriy Khoroshkovsky and Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, with a royal gift of eight broadcasting licenses for a national digital multiplex. Some extra, albeit fewer, licenses went to Rinat Akhmetov’s Ukraina TV channel, as well as Viktor Pinchuk’s and Ihor Kolomoisky’s groups. The opposition-oriented TVi channel was stiffed to no one’s surprise, while many operating regional broadcasters were kicked out of digital television in favor of unknown ghost channels. However, a new decision is due in 2016.

What is this? Is the government purging the national television industry in order to take over it or is it merely re-distributing the limited resource, i.e. radio frequencies in this particular case, in favor of business owners who are close to those in power? Why is the government authority which is responsible for protecting public interests sweeping some TV broadcasters from the air and replacing them with others with such extent blatant impunity? Why did the broadcasters who have spent zero time in television get the tastiest morsels while others who have been working for their reputations for years were kicked out of the feast? Why did the licenses go to companies that are not simply loyal to the government but spring directly from it? After all, quite symbolically, all this is happening at the same time as the show just two blocks away, at Pechersk District Court, where members of the previous government are being put under trial for abuse of power.

Average Ukrainians can hardly laugh at thisscandalous move as they barely know the technical details. Few people know the professional differences between digital and analogue signals, the meaning of the term 'multiplex' or even whether or not they will be able to toss out the TVs they now have within the next three years. Before enjoying the spectacle, the average public needs a briefing on the background. Under international treaties signed by Ukraine, analogue broadcasting, i.e. the transmission of a television signal suitable for common home antennas, terminates after 2015. This will free frequencies while allowing digital television to be viewed through an additional receiver costing about $50-100. The NRTC granted the monopoly to distribute digital signals all over Ukraine to the privately-owned Zeonbud, a company with non-transparent owners, to say the least. Moreover, a wide-scale re-distribution campaign of national broadcasting frequencies occurred early in 2010. As a result, the pro-government Inter channel ended up with a few dozen analogue frequencies withdrawn from the opposition-oriented TVi and Channel 5 TV channels. The Ukrainian Week has already illustrated the level of intellectual background behind the NRTC’s decisions in its previous issues.

Those offended have turned to the courts for justice. But this the best place to go given business's experience with the Pechersk Court, the so-called ‘most humane court in the world?’ All the above nonsense fits into one word – mayhem. Surprisingly, similar events are more complaint with political ethics even in the thoroughly disciplined Russia.

Still, what does this all mean? Of the two plausible versions – censorship and money – the latter looks more likely. Broadcasters that have frequencies boast much higher capitalization than companies that have none. According to different estimates, the market for receivers alone is worth hundreds of millions of US dollars. Yet the young and wealthy media moguls hardly realize the pace at which TV product delivery technologies, including online television, are evolving. In order to take both the network and the satellite under control, they either need the power of Hu Jintao, or the nerves of Aleksander Lukashenka.

The key to success does not lie in multiplexes or receivers. Nobody thought about Facebook until February 2004 or an iPhone until June 2007. Oleksandr Tkachenko, Director General of the 1+1 national TV channel, was right when he said, “We are on the verge of a new era… In the future, content will matter more than the way signals are transmitted.”

In other words, 2016 is not that close. But in the meantime, there is still so much to steal!

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