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East European Media: an Enigmatic Market
by William Dunkerley
Consider how promising the media market in Central and Eastern Europe might be for investment. An enormous underdeveloped potential exists as a legacy from the Communist past. Consumers are still being under-served by most present information and entertainment offerings. At the same time, emerging free economies are spawning new segments of society that are thirsting for more and more information and entertainment. Businesses in the region are in need of media advertising opportunities like never before. The air is ripe for innovation and development. Investment capital is needed. In Russia, the media market is such that even the major banks are investing substantially of their own capital in media enterprises.
Before you conclude that this media market represents a great investment opportunity, consider the following. In much of the region, media outlets are unable to produce enough revenue from operations to cover their basic expenses. In the print segment, there are far more enterprises than the economy could possibly support through advertising and circulation revenues. In both print and broadcast media, government interference is rampant in some quarters. And if that were not bad enough, at a macroeconomic level, there is a considerable amount of dysfunctional organisation that makes success at the enterprise level extremely difficult. Structures and ways of thinking left over from the Communist era often still prevail. Managers typically lack the business acumen to deal with such challenging situations.
Despite these stark contrasts, the post-Communist media market is indeed attracting Western investment capital. Some entrepreneurs are achieving great success and are even expanding operations. @Entertainment (U.S. owned), long a cable operator in Poland, is about to launch a direct satellite-to-home TV service there. The top TV station in the Czech Republic is owned by a Western firm that has gone on to operate in six other post-Communist countries. However, in Belarus, the government recently shut down Svaboda, the country's largest independent newspaper, for publishing reportedly anti-government articles. And, in the Russian Duma, a new broadcasting law that will prohibit foreign ownership has passed its first reading. Clearly, the media market in Central and Eastern Europe is quite enigmatic, to say the least.
There are a number of problems that beset the media throughout the region. They exist to widely varying degrees from country to country, as does the extent of media privatisation. However, together, these problems form a common context for understanding the overall media milieu.
The first problem is perhaps a sociological one. It is the way in which the role of the media is perceived by governmental, political, industrial, and financial institutions. During the Communist era, media enterprises were not only state owned. They also were considered an integral part of governance. It was through dominance of the media that the sources of power sought to influence society. That paradigm still exists. Constitutions and regulations generally provide for the operation of independent media enterprises. In practice, however, powerful forces, governmental and otherwise, still seek to exert significant control in many of the countries.
Just why it is possible for the media to be dominated is explained by the second problem. Media operators have found it difficult to generate sufficient advertising and circulation revenues. Many enterprises are in a virtual state of bankruptcy. While much of the problem can be explained by a lack of business experience, certain macroeconomic factors also interfere with business success: (1) The presence of monopolies, state or private, tends to hold down advertising expenditures. (Advertising is only a necessity in a competitive environment.) (2) State enterprises may spend their advertising budgets on the basis of political favouritism. (3) A number of typically internal functions critical to an enterprise's success may be outside of its control. For example, a broadcaster may receive a license to operate a TV station, but not to own a transmitter and antenna, thereby having to contract with a state enterprise for those services. (4) Government operated and subsidised newspapers, TV, and radio stations compete with private enterprises. (5) Newspapers have little alternative to using state owned printing plants and a state owned subscription and distribution system, paying high prices and receiving poor service. (6) Laws on libelling or insulting public officials are used to exert political influence over the media.
Russia is the largest of all post-Communist media markets. Major Russian banks have invested in media enterprises. So have large industrial concerns like Gazprom and Lukoil, the enormous gas and oil monopolies. But they are putting money into the national media, not with a return on investment as a primary objective. Buying influence over society appears to be their principal motivation. Enterprises do not use this "investment" money for development in order to achieve profitability. Rather, it is used to make up for the shortfall from operations. The investors are actually subsidisers. At the local or regional level, the media is often subsidised by provincial or municipal administrations. Overall, there is no great push for profitability or normalisation of the market.
Prior to the banks and industrial concerns formally acquiring ownership, they were already subsidising the media covertly. Explaining Gazprom's media acquisitions, Viktor Ilyushin who heads its media interests said, "we should legalise our conjugal relations with certain mass media."
Before such commercial subsidies started coming in, media enterprises had earlier begun to sell outright the influence they are perceived to have, to make up for losses from their conventional media operations. This practice is called euphemistically "hidden advertisement." It is simply the taking of money to broadcast or publish a favourable story for someone under the guise of objective news coverage. The customer may be a businessperson or a politician. Similarly, one can also buy unfavourable coverage for a competitor or opponent. Russian economist and media expert Alexei Izyumov writing in Newsweek said, "While the government is applying pressure on the media from above, the new rich are buying favourable coverage."
The legal framework that makes this all possible is based on a collection of laws. The Constitution adopted in 1993 guarantees the right to produce and distribute information and provides for the existence of private mass media enterprises. Earlier, in 1991, the Law on Mass Media was adopted which also establishes a right to own and engage in a media business. There is yet no law specifically to cover broadcasting. As a result, much broadcasting regulation is by decree. On September 3, 1997, the Duma passed the first reading of a draft broadcasting law. The second reading is expected before the end of the first quarter of this year. Dr. Andrei Richter at Moscow State University says the law mainly puts current practice into a legal framework. However it will prohibit not only foreign ownership, but even foreign influence. Richter gives the bill a 50:50 chance of ultimately being passed into law.
Other laws serve to directly limit the chances of media profitability. Russian tax law limits the amount any enterprise can spend on advertising to 5 percent of its turnover. Expenditures beyond that limit are not tax deductible. This has a depressing effect on advertising expenditures, and thus media revenues. Newspapers are limited to 40 percent advertising content, otherwise they face higher taxes and distribution expense. That limitation in itself makes profitability hard to attain.
All this leads to a very abnormal market where usual media economics have little relevance. Investors do not require profitability. Enterprise operators do not know how to produce it, anyway. But because of the powerful pressures, media offerings are shaped not to serve consumer needs, but to obey the requirements of financial backers. Certainly, this suggests a market vacuum that might be filled by a new entry taking a different approach. But, the macroeconomic misdevelopment remains, and one wonders if the powerful forces now in control would permit changing the status quo.
In contrast, Poland's media market presents a refreshing change. According to Warsaw University's Dr. Karol Jakubowicz, the country's former radio and television monopoly was terminated with the enactment of the 1991 broadcasting law. It is estimated that private media now account for 85 percent of the market. Foreign investment in print media is not restricted, and was once estimated to be involved in over half the country's publications. In broadcasting, however, a restriction exists on the permissible extent of foreign ownership in an entity.
Emblematic of the country's advances in media is the impending launch of satellite-to-home TV by @Entertainment. The U.S. based company is listed on Nasdaq (ATEN). The Chief Executive Officer Robert Fowler said his experience with Poland's regulatory framework has been "remarkably positive." "Regulatory changes have been predictable, announced and debated," he said, thus allowing his company to develop advanced plans.
The Czech Republic
The law on radio and television serves as the basic instrument covering the media in the Czech Republic. It was adopted in 1991, but has been amended six times since then. It requires licensing of broadcasters. Cable operators and periodical publishers only have to register with the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting or the Ministry of Culture, respectively. Foreign ownership is permitted, and indeed is prevalent, in all forms of media. However, the operator of an enterprise must be a legal entity in the country.
Foreign investors began entering Hungary's print media sector soon after the old system of licensing was abolished in 1989. By 1996, foreign investors held a controlling interest in 60 percent of the daily newspaper market. Also in that year the radio and television broadcasting law was adopted. It provides for a minimum level of Hungarian ownership in an enterprise, but does not preclude outside control. The two national channels were quickly acquired last year by Scandinavian Broadcasting System and by a consortium led by Bertelsmann in Germany and Luxembourg-based CLT.
Slovakia has a media law dating back to 1966 which was amended in 1990. Foreign ownership is permitted, although licensing preference is given to foreign applicants planning to contribute to original domestic programming. In Romania, the 1992 broadcast law permits foreign ownership. A cable law is now in Parliament with expected passage during the first half of the year. Slovenia's media is governed by a 1994 law. It limits foreign ownership in a media enterprise to 33%. According to the government's media office, "this limitation will soon be abolished to harmonise Slovene legislation with that of the European Union."
Finally, in Croatia, the laws permit foreign ownership to a maximum of 25 percent. It is widely understood, however, that privatisation activities have placed media enterprises into the hands of those friendly to the President or the ruling party. Recently an organisation called Forum 21 has been formed to lobby for dissembling the present state monopoly on national television, and broadening the spectrum of ownership.
Perhaps the most promising trend is one being set by Central European Media Enterprises (CME). In fact, it may serve as a prototype for how to conquer this enigmatic media market. Based in Bermuda, CME was founded by Ronald Lauder, Estee Lauder cosmetics heir and former U.S. Ambassador to Austria. Its stock is traded on Nasdaq (CETV). The company owns the top TV station in the Czech Republic, and has added properties in Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, and Ukraine. The company's president and Chief Executive Officer Leonard Fertig says their success is greatly advanced by building indigenous businesses with local partners. "We find partners that will operate in a Western manner," he explains. "We work for a year or more prior to the start of operations, massing 20 to 30 people alongside our partners to do the planning. Then we kick it off together." Fertig says they install Western financial and advertising directors, and leave a number of people in place for a year after launch. Where will CME go next? Fertig indicates they are looking at the Baltics, the Balkans, the Transcaucasis, and Russia.
There is no single indicator of which countries in the region represent the best prospects for media investment. However, the degree of freedom that exists from government meddling, and the presence of a permissive legal framework are important considerations. They both contribute towards establishing the economic conditions in which media enterprises can prosper.
Each year, the Freedom House, A New York based non- profit organisation conducts a study of press independence worldwide. Their 1998 report is yet to be released. But the new findings for the post-Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe are shown below.
These ratings provide a reasonable guide for understanding the relative position of any country. Some caution should be exercised in using this as an absolute indicator. For instance, the data show only a fine line separating Ukraine from Russia, though many differences exist. Some countries have special circumstances that might impact media economics. For instance, Lithuania is in the process of converting from one television transmission standard to another (SECAM to PAL). In Latvia, a dual-language approach is necessary as Russian speakers make up one-third of the population. There are other country-specific situations, as well, that would impact the economics of media markets. Certainly, a country's overall economic performance is critical if sufficient advertising revenues are to exist to drive a sustainable media market.
Ratings of Press Independence
Lithuania 17; Czech Republic 19; Estonia 20; Latvia 21; Poland 25; Slovenia 27; Hungary 28; Bulgaria 36; Romania 39; Macedonia 44; Slovakia 47; Ukraine 49; Russia 53; Albania 56; Moldova 58; Croatia 63; Bosnia 74; Yugoslavia 75; Belarus 88.
The ratings indicate the degree to which press freedom is negatively impacted. Thus, a low score indicates a relatively free and unencumbered media; a high score attests to considerable interference. Factors that go into the rating include laws and governmental decisions, political and economic pressures, and physical oppression. (Study conducted by Freedom House, New York)
(The foregoing article appeared in the January 1998 issue of The Investors' Journal of Legislative Impact -- Regulation and Policy Developments in Emerging Markets, London.)
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