Television in Bulgaria in 2011: Problems and Trends

12 март 2012, Автор: Todor P. Todorov
Публикувана в 2011 Media Monitoring Report

The developments in Bulgaria’s television landscape in 2011 followed major global trends but also the specific logic of the Bulgarian context. Here we will analyze several key moments.

Shift from Serious to Entertainment Formats

Serious, professional commentators and reporters, investigative journalists, analyses, in-depth interviews, expert discussions and documentaries were displaced by talk shows and reality formats, by entertainment shows which colonize the public television sphere, instrumentalize journalism, and reformat the perception of and requirements towards reality. This shift from serious to entertainment formats was particularly evident in one of the few ambitious investigative journalism projects on Bulgarian television, the special section devoted to investigations which is a part of one of the most popular entertainment shows, bTV’s Gospodari na efira (Masters of the Air, the Bulgarian version of Striscia la notizia). What we saw was direct incorporation and conversion (which also means translation) of journalistic genres and contents into forms of the entertainment industry. We also saw the replacement of journalistic authorities, the reduction and appropriation of the field of news and current affairs by people who are the product of television and who claim to speak for public opinion but in fact present the industry of social fears, expectations, evaluations and even ethical criticisms (the most eloquent examples of such speakers: Slavi Trifonov, bTV; Sasho Dikov, Kanal 3; Yuliyan Vuchkov, Kanal 3; Velizar Enchev, Skat TV).

Visibility and Legitimation of Media-Political Cartels

Ownership in the media validates the claim that ownership is the medium. Judging from last year’s developments, Bulgarian television has become an immediate function of capital. This points to the alarming conclusion that Bulgarian television has willingly turned into a function of power and its interests (government, corporate, private, group and other interests). Furthermore, by presenting them it legitimates those interests which sometimes involve otherwise illegitimate capital (illegitimate in the legal and moral sense). This voluntary subordination is dictated by the economic dependence of the media themselves, by Bulgaria’s small and unstable market (including a small and unstable advertising market) in which few survive, and by the competition war as well as by the war for survival, fought with no holds barred. Last but not least is the lack of job security in TV media, which is conducive to political conformism and self-censorship on the part of journalists. In 2011, the distribution of the television market and its subordination to such mechanisms made visible and legitimated different areas of influence in the media sphere which, in the context of last year’s presidential and local government elections in Bulgaria, realized the actual map of the political imaginary (for example, by excluding certain individuals from the TV screen, unlike others whose presence was guaranteed by mobilized capital and power constellations and interests). This unavoidably points to the instrumentalization of television and journalism as a whole in Bulgaria, which threatens the democratic process and the existence of an informed public without which the latter is impossible.

Television as a Showcase for Persons and Personal Relations

In these conditions, the TV screen has become a showcase that shows and recycles a set of mutually replaceable speakers, people who have won media status both in the political field and within the field of journalism itself. The focus is on the personal confrontation between those individuals, not on the confrontation between their arguments, between what they represent, what they are responsible for to the public and what truly matters. Another characteristic of Bulgarian television is the ‘expert’ TV presence of politicians, their presentation as a separate class of professionals (the cliché about ‘the political class’), which, in the long term, alienates people from politics, produces indifference and lack of interest (except in what is happening on the surface, which is also of main interest to the media), and gives rise to the conviction that the public is only a spectator, not a true participant in the political process. Thus, the TV screen functions as a partition screen in the Freudian sense, a surface that shows things aimed at hiding other contents which are more important and significant in terms of information.

The 2011 Election Campaign: Commercialized and Uneventful

The election campaign on Bulgarian television suffered the flaws of the whole media situation in Bulgaria. The market was the natural media climate of the elections, while the market regulations determined the business-like and drab atmosphere of the campaign and pre-outlined the landscape and the figures actualized by the campaign. The crisis in the TV advertising market was offset by production and marketing of political images/products. The relationship of television to the election campaign stories and figures was a contractual commercial relationship involving trade and manufacture. This caused a reduction of political stories to the level of commercial advertising, and substitution of political rhetoric and its relevance by clichés (including visual ones), staged events (for example, in the debates) and ‘piecemeal’ advertisements. Political images and figures were presented on television on a par with sausages and detergents. The campaign became uneventful, which made it neutral and dull. After the first round of the elections, television became more interesting insofar as the election process itself created an event and insofar as the ‘partition screen’ was filled with a series of staged micro-conflicts (for example, ‘Dogan’s kiss’ – after the first round of the elections, DPS leader Ahmed Dogan declared he would support the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s candidates for president and vice-president without demanding anything in exchange, other than ‘a nice kiss’; Dogan’s statement caused a volley of media and political interpretations). The media, as a whole, began to be used more actively and more directly.

Entertainment Industry Dominated by Bulgarian TV Series

According to data of People Meters BG and GARB, the most-watched television programmes of 2011 (those with the largest number of viewers and the highest rating) were the Turkish TV series Aşk-ı Memnu/Forbidden Love and Yaprak Dökümü/The Fall of Leaves, followed by the Bulgarian productions Stolichani v poveche/Sofia Residents in Surplus (TV series), Komitsite/The Comedians (stand-up comedy show) and Staklen dom/Glass House (TV series), all of them aired on bTV. The overall trend was towards turning television above all into an entertainment industry with little room for serious, critical news and current affairs programmes and intellectual TV debate. One positive trend was the significantly higher output and quality of Bulgarian TV series which have a large audience in the country and sell well on the international market (for the time being, mostly in Southeast Europe). These series deal with topical themes, issues and social relations in Bulgarian society. Among the most popular TV series in 2011 were Staklen dom/Glass House, Pod prikritie/Undercover (crime series), Sedem chasa razlika/A Seven-Hour Difference (problems of the judicial system, organized crime and social polarization), Stolichani v poveche/Sofia Residents in Surplus (a parody of social and political realities in Bulgaria), and Domashen arrest/House Arrest (family comedy).

Two Ways of Making Television: ‘Beauty Parlour’ vs ‘Barbershop’

The media conditions in Bulgaria in 2011 left two types of dominant television models, two ways of television production: the market policy of the expensive ‘beauty parlour’ and the commentary chatter and rhetoric of the ‘barbershop’. Visual and acoustic television differentiated themselves (‘the beauty parlour’ vs ‘the barbershop’). The glossy phantasmal visual images of the television industry which operates as a function of capital or power and invents power (bTV, TV7, Nova Television, Bulgarian National Television) were the counterpoint to the self-made ‘live’ studio which is outside that capital, claims to be independent, and serves as a platform for orators and speakers of the populace, criticizing, complaining, instructing or accusing (Kanal 3, Skat). Very often such television channels (including regional ones, such as Pernik’s Krakra) broadcast constantly from a single, modestly furnished and maintained studio which ‘rotates’, nonstop, guests in their role as alternative voices.

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The crisis of critical television journalism in Bulgaria is also a crisis of the democratic process. One should bear in mind, however, that the trends characteristic of the Bulgarian situation are also global trends in international journalism. The ensuing conflict poses serious communicative risks which, in the long term, could have dangerous effects in the political and social sphere. All democratic institutions, journalists themselves and civil society at large need to adequately understand those problems (this is also the task of this article) and constantly seek strategies for overcoming them.

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