During socialism, Hungarian television boasted more channel diversity and more openness to foreign broadcasts, including Western channels, than any other Eastern bloc nation

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During socialism, Hungarian television boasted more channel diversity and more openness to foreign broadcasts, including Western channels, than any other Eastern bloc nation. Yet, ironically, commercial television arrived in Hungary only in late 1997, much later than in other Central European nations. The explanation for this irony lies in uncertainties about commercial broadcasting and disagreements about the proper role of television in the newly democratic nation.

Today, Hungarian television includes three state-run channels, two national commercial broadcasters, several commercial cable and satellite channels, and a number of local and regional non-profit broadcasters. Magyar Televízió (MTV), the premiere state broadcaster, enjoys a nationwide reach, while a second public channel, MTV2, is carried on satellite and cable. State-funded Duna Televízió operates a second satellite channel that targets the more than three million Hungarian speakers who live in neighboring countries. Hungarian public broadcasting is a mixed system, funded by a combination of license fees and advertising.

The two national commercial channels are RTL-Klub, which broadcasts on the channel formerly occupied by MTV2, and TV2, which took over the former Soviet channel. Both RTL-Klub and TV2 are run by a media consortium headed by Western investors. RTL-Klub is owned by Luxembourg-based CLT-Ufa (49%), the Hungarian telephone monopoly MATÁV (25%), UK media group Pearson (20%), and the Austrian bank group Raiffeisen (6%), while TV2 is owned by Scandinavian-based SBS (49%), Hungarian production company MTM Kommunikációs Rt. (38.5%), and German production company Tele-München Fernseh (12.5%).

Cable penetration in Hungary is high, and DTH services are growing. Estimates project that in 2002, fifty-two percent of Hungary's 3.8 million television homes subscribed to cable, while DTH penetration was twenty percent. Cable and satellite broadcasters include both niche and general entertainment channels. Among the most popular of these channels are HBO Hungary, the American movie channel's first international venture begun in 1991, and the general entertainment channel ViaSat, owned by the Swedish media group Modern Times. TV3, a general entertainment cable channel owned by US-based Central European Media Enterprises (CME), a media powerhouse in the region, went broke in 2000 after three years on the air.

Hungary boasts one of the fastest growing advertising industries in the region, with revenues climbing more than 500 percent between 1997 and 2002, and projected to nearly double again in the next five years. For the first four months of 2002, RTL-Klub was the top-ranked broadcaster, averaging a 33 rating in all demographics, followed closely by TV2 with an overall 30 rating. MTV, meanwhile, attracted 12.7 percent of overall viewers during the same period. While imported programming from the U.S. and Western Europe, particularly Germany, make up a significant portion of the Hungarian television landscape, local production is growing. ViaSat scored good ratings with its local version of the reality series Bár (The Bar), especially among 18-49 year olds, while RTL-Klub has had success with the homegrown melodrama Barátok közt (Among Friends). In addition, Latin American telenovelas have proved quite popular, leading to the formation of the Romantica cable channel devoted exclusively to the genre.

Television broadcasting in Hungary began on 1 May 1957 with a live broadcast of May Day ceremonies from Hero’s Square. The Rome Olympics in 1960 greatly helped accelerate adoption rates of the new medium, nearly doubling the number of sets to 100,000 by the end of the year. In order to understand the character of Hungarian television during socialism, it is necessary to examine briefly the political conditions surrounding broadcasting. In 1956, Hungarian reformers overthrew the socialist government, and were suppressed only through Soviet military intervention. Thereafter the new party secretary, János Kádár, implemented a series of political and economic reforms often referred to as "goulash communism" designed to redress or placate many of the reformers' concerns. Openness to the West, including unrestricted travel for Hungarians, was an important part of these reforms, and this openness extended to imported Western programming and television channels. Sparks and Reading (1992) report that nearly seventy percent of MTV's programming in 1986 was imported from Western nations, in particular the UK and West Germany. Viewers were also given a degree of choice in entertainment and current affairs programming with the introduction of MTV2 in the mid-seventies. One of the most popular and enduring programs of this period was the amateur talent-variety show Ki mit tud?(What Can You Do?), begun in 1962, which launched the careers of several musicians, actors, and entertainers.

In 1984, Hungary became the first Eastern bloc nation to introduce community cable television, reaching upwards of 200,000 homes by 1988. Run by the Hungarian Post Office, these cable systems carried public television broadcasts from West Germany and France. Also under the 1984 media laws, the legality of private television productions, the reception of satellite and terrestrial broadcasts from abroad, and the purchase of VCRs and videotapes were affirmed. The relative openness of television during this period kept the media from losing popular confidence, which also helped insulate them from radical changes when the socialist regime collapsed in 1989.

Although the transition in Hungary from the socialist regime to a democratic form of government occurred peacefully, the same cannot be said for the transition from socialist state broadcasting to the current public-private system. From the collapse of the ruling socialist party in 1989 until the passage of the new media law in late 1995, the various factions of the Hungarian political scene carried out a highly publicized "media war" over the future of broadcasting. In the 1990 elections, a conservative coalition led by the nationalist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) came to power, with the opposition led by the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) and the re-christened Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). The media wars stemmed from different political philosophies regarding broadcasting. Sensitive to criticism, the MDF tried to install its own members in positions of power at MTV under the guise of purging the broadcaster of leftovers from the socialist period. The opposition, meanwhile, hoped to place the state broadcaster beyond governmental control in order to keep MTV from falling under the majority’s influence.

Because neither side could muster the two-thirds majority required to pass broadcasting legislation, they agreed to appoint a compromise candidate, Elemér Hankiss, to head Hungarian television until the details of the new law could be hammered out. Hankiss drew the ire of the MDF when he removed its appointees from positions of power in an effort to make television news more objective, and the MDF fought back by invoking a 1974 decree that gave the prime minister the authority to dismiss media presidents. The decree was sent to the president, opposition leader Árpád Göncz, for his signature, but Göncz refused to sign, sending the matter to the Constitutional Court. The Court held in favor of the president's right to refuse to sign legislation that he deemed undemocratic, and also required parliament to pass new legislation by the end of 1992.

The 1992 deadline came and went with various drafts of the new laws stalled in parliament. Weary of battling the MDF, Hankiss formally resigned, along with his counterpart at Hungarian Radio. The MDF quickly took control of MTV and turned it into a party mouthpiece, firing or reassigning numerous journalists and launching a concentrated attack against the MSZP, which led in election polling. Their efforts, however, proved unsuccessful, as the MSZP emerged victorious and formed a majority coalition with the SZDSZ. Most importantly for our purposes, the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition held 72 percent of parliamentary seats, more than the two-thirds required to pass a media law. In spite of the change in government, cronyism continued at MTV and political wrangling delayed the new media law until late 1995. The ruling coalition appointed a new president of MTV, who subsequently fired conservative personnel appointed by the MDF and replaced them with liberals and socialists, leaving many to wonder whether anything had changed with the new government. The liberal-socialist coalition also squabbled internally about how best to design a public-private broadcasting industry. At issue was the fate of the public channel MTV2, which the socialists wanted to keep in public possession, and the liberals wanted to privatize to help pay off foreign debts. Ultimately, a compromise was reached that privatized the second channel and placed MTV2 on satellite.

The 1996 Radio and Television Services Act established an oversight commission for public broadcasting, the Országos Rádió és Televízió Testület (National Radio and Television Commission, ORTT) made up of nominees from each party represented in parliament. In addition, the Board of Trustees of the Public Television Foundation, which oversees the operations of MTV, consists of representatives from a variety of social, ethnic, and religious groups. Other key features of the new law include advertising caps, foreign and domestic ownership regulations, domestic content regulations, and the process for soliciting bids and awarding licenses for the two, ten-year commercial television broadcasting licenses. The new commercial channels, RTL-Klub and Channel 2, began broadcasting in October 1997.

Although the long-awaited law was passed, one final chapter in the Hungarian media wars remained to be written. After the ORTT awarded licenses to RTL-Klub and Channel 2, rumors began to circulate that CME had, in fact, outbid competitors, but had been denied the license because of its American ownership and its hegemonic position as a commercial broadcaster in the region. CME filed suit in Hungarian court claiming that RTL-Klub's bid had arrived after the deadline, and was therefore illegal. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which in January 2000 ruled against the ORTT and RTL-Klub, but stopped short of directing the ORTT to pull the plug on RTL-Klub. Instead, the Court claimed it lacked the authority to compel the ORTT to act, because the ORTT answered only to parliament. Many in the Western television industries held their breaths to see whether the ORTT would, in fact, be forced to remove RTL-Klub from the airwaves after more than two years of broadcasting, but the directive from parliament never came.

Private, multichannel television was slow in coming to Hungary for a variety of reasons, not least uncertainties about the impact of commercialization on the public sphere and different political philosophies about the merits of corporate capitalism. After spending seven years pacing the sidelines, the forces of international television entered the television game in Hungary with vehemence. Concerns about cultural decay have since become commonplace among Hungarian scholars, but the initial fascination with all things Western among everyday Hungarians seems to be wearing off. While it remains to be seen how the forces of international capital will reshape the Hungarian television market and what the cultural consequences will be, it is certain that Hungarians today find themselves rather suddenly at the confluence of numerous transnational television flows from North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Australia, and Latin America.

For Further Reading

Boyle, Maryellen, “The Public Sphere After Communism in Central Europe: Television and the New Political Class,” Research in Political Sociology, Vol. 7 (1995).
Downing, John, Internationalizing Media Theory: Transition, Power, Culture—Reflections on Media in Russia, Poland and Hungary 1980-95 , London and Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1996.
Koreny, János, Gábor Heckenast and András Polgár, A Magyar Televízió története kezdetektol—napjainkig, (The History of Hungarian Television from the Beginning Until the Present) Budapest: Ajtósi Dürer Könyvkiadó, 1995.
Kosztolányi, Gusztáv, “’No One’s Jamming Their Transmission:’ TV Broadcasting in Hungary,” Central European Review, Vol. 1 (1999).
Kosztolányi, Gusztáv, “Screen Test: TV Broadcasting in Hungary,” Central European Review, Vol. 1 (1999).
Lánczi, András and Patrick H. O’Neil, “Pluralization and the Politics of Media Change in Hungary,” in Post-Communism and the Media in Eastern Europe, edited by Patrick H O'Neil, London. F. Cass, 1996; Portland, Oregon: F. Cass, 1997.
Sparks, Colin, and Anna Reading, Communism, Capitalism, and the Mass Media, London and Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1998.
Sparks, Colin, “Media Theory After the Fall of European Communism: Why the Old Models from East and West Won’t Do Any More,” in De-Westernizing Media Studies, edited by James Curran and Myung-Jin Park, London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Szekfü, András, “Intruders Welcome? The Beginnings of Satellite Television in Hungary,” European Journal of Communication, Vol. 4 (1989).

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