6. The Colonization of East European TV

A NUMBER of interesting events took place several years ago in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, during the time that my wife Vida and I were living there. They illustrate perfectly the extent of the media crisis within the European sphere.

In May 2001, the Goethe Institute in Vilnius (in conjunction with the Polish Institute and the French Cultural Centre) organized a two-day visit by executives from the Franco-German TV consortium La Sept ARTE to Lithuanian National TV (LRT), to discuss the possibility of potential co-productions. (As I describe in my Lithuanian website, ARTE co-produced and subsequently marginalized my film LA COMMUNE in France.)

The meeting that took place in Vilnius between ARTE and LRT can clearly be considered a case study in TV colonization. First of all, the public - while not exactly barred - were not exactly invited to the general programme of events organized by the Goethe Institute. My wife Vida was the only 'outsider' at the meeting, which was attended by representatives from Polish TV, the Goethe Institute, the French Cultural Centre, several Lithuanian cultural figures (including from the Ministry of Culture), a handful of TV executives, and Lithuanian filmmakers and TV workers.

"discussion by experts... cultural journalism in TV; the ARTE model..." - the description of the upcoming event went on to present the central theme of the meeting with ARTE: "How a common European cultural television should look [my italics] in the future; inspired by the co-operation already existing between the Arte Cultural Channel and Polish television."

Given our own recent difficult experiences with ARTE, we were appalled to learn that this TV syndicate was coming to Vilnius - basically to tell Lithuanians how European cultural television should look, and to present itself as the model.

Lithuanian TV - probably like most TV in the countries of the former Soviet Union - is already undergoing many levels of crisis, including the apparent inability to develop any form of MAVM with its own cultural identity and values. All the TV channels in Lithuania are becoming clones of the worst forms of western TV - brimming with non-stop advertising, brutal cop shows, violent and dehumanizing 'thrillers', superficial conflict-style 'debates' (in one popular confrontational programme the speakers wear bull-fighters' capes), soap-operas, MTV-type music programmes, and news broadcasts replicating the worst of the USA/European model.

I wrote a four-page statement about the dangers of the existing media situation, and asked that it be presented to the participants at the ARTE-LRT meeting for discussion. [This statement is available on my Lithuanian website.] The statement was placed on a windowsill, and subsequently ignored.

During their visit, the ARTE executives pursued a two-prong strategy in their endeavour to expand their empire. First they issued a series of slogans and catch-phrases to describe how democratic ARTE and its eight-member board of decision-makers in Strasbourg is, how dutifully it carries out its public service role, the importance of 'cultural TV' in Europe, etc. The following medley of their slogans gives a general idea of their style of approach:

"...the new media needs to remain creative, including in the cultural programme sphere; ARTE has a cultural mission, with a pro-active approach, and must remain curious about other cultures and countries across language and cultural borders; only public TV can provoke, go beyond society's accepted borders, create new ideas; a society that only reacts to marketing doesn't develop; not having to depend on marketing allows looking at quality and provocative programmes; we don't need to do what mass programming does; we don't have to always broadcast popular programmes; ARTE must follow the pure, genuine specific mission of public service; ARTE loves film and supports its creation; ARTE works so that films can widen our horizons and open our hearts, be bold enough to formulate their own success, and always march to their own beat; we are for everyone, but not for everyone at the same time..." Etc.

These and similar statements (noted by Vida) represented the main thrust of ARTE's 'cultural' position. The second prong of their strategy, and the real business of the meeting, emerged early on in the proceedings - when the leading ARTE bureaucrats began to fret about the "brutal" competition from burgeoning private and commercial stations throughout Europe, and to explain that ARTE has no choice but to use the same broadcasting techniques in order to achieve as high a viewer rating (numbers) as possible (!!) - while claiming that their mandate is above needing to rely on such commercial practices!

The ARTE executives stated that they had learned that "zapping time" on cable TV allowed 1-3 minutes of viewing. But, they asserted: "TV cannot exist in 3 minute slots". It was therefore important to slow television down - "to 26, 52, and 90 minute programming intervals", and to use "thematic evenings". There was no discussion about the fact that their thematic evenings and 'slowed down' programme intervals constitute nothing but the same enforced packaging; or about the fact that these 'extended' (and rapidly diminishing) time slots also reinforce the Monoform, and constitute the basic elements of the Universal Clock.

What did the listeners, including the international cultural corps, do with such contradictions? Precisely what European society in general does: absolutely nothing.

Was this because they were afraid to challenge ARTE? Or were they so enmeshed in the collapsed values of modern day culture that all of this double-talk sounded completely 'normal' to them?

What was particularly significant and tragic, was the role of the Lithuanian media professionals at this meeting: they also sat and passively accepted the contradictory positions presented by ARTE (which, let us not forget, was being formally proposed as the role model for European cultural TV).

The fact that LRT is desperately anxious to join the 'European Club' might somehow be justified, were it not for the fact that it also has a PUBLICLY accountable role to play in Lithuania. LRT represents state supported TV for the public - the contradiction being that the public are not likely to hear much about any of the policy decisions made subsequent to this meeting, let alone play a role in the decision-making process itself.

As for ARTE and its views? The executives dismissed the public as "mass zappers" and - exactly as their colleagues in the overtly corrupt commercial TV stations - obviously felt that their viewers need intense manipulation in order to fulfill their role as providers of high audience ratings.

The weakness of the position on the Lithuanian side became especially clear when ARTE discussed relations with foreign countries, including with those East European TV stations that it hoped to involve in co-productions. While stressing that it was "wonderful to share experiences", the importance of "team-play", how they wanted to help East Europeans present their culture on TV, etc., the ARTE executives made it absolutely clear that it was they, not the East Europeans, who would decide which programmes and ideas might be accepted and financed (back again to the 'democratic' eight-member committee). ARTE also clearly exposed some of the highly biased and conservative thinking behind their selection criteria.

One of the ARTE executives stated: "Programmes like 'Our Towns' [which quietly documents life in small Lithuanian villages] wouldn't be interesting. But conflicts in Lithuanian-Polish history would be a new discovery for our public." (As if conflict wasn't already a serious problem on TV!!) When asked how ARTE decides which cultural events make it onto the TV screens, another 'cultural' programmer replied: "It's always a subjective choice, and I can't deny that there are other factors - it's important who knows whom."

A further glimpse into executive thinking came when the ARTE programmer referred to a Polish programme on Chopin, and said that it was "hard for the French to watch this slower stuff" (!) And the most revealing moment emerged in their description of special meetings at ARTE, three times a year - to "develop further what we, and probably [my italics] the public, is interested in."

On the second day, Vida (who had to leave before the end of the first day) attempted to raise some questions she had written down, and to refer to my statement. The object of her query was to discuss the extreme contradictions in ARTE's position, and to point out that, despite their claims that films should "march to their own beat", etc., they had blatantly marginalized LA COMMUNE, and in general were adopting all the worst methodology of commercial TV. During a pause in the proceedings, one of the ARTE executives asked: "Are there any questions?" After a long silence, including from the Lithuanian TV professionals, Vida said: "Yes, I would like to know when I could raise some points, including issues in Peter Watkins' statement." The ARTE executives seemed taken aback, and then one of them said that he would not discuss my article "...without the author present." Vida continued that nonetheless, there were some questions which she personally wanted to raise. Whereupon the Lithuanians, including the LRT acting director and one of the moderators of the event, began to whisper furiously amongst themselves. Lo and behold! - a sudden round of questions about collaboration, technical matters, etc. End of critical moment... media professionals to the rescue of the system!

During the final break, Vida approached a group hovering around the ARTE executives, and asked the apparently senior ARTE representative: "You really don't like critical questions in public, do you?". To which he replied: "That's not true, I just don't want to discuss things when the author isn't there." Vida: "But I also have questions, as a member of the public, about ARTE policies." Here the ARTE public relations man tried to say something, but the senior executive interrupted with: "I asked if anyone had any questions after the session yesterday, and no one had any...". Vida: "You must have done that after I left." Upon which the director of the Goethe Institute turned to Vida and retorted: "Well, that's your problem isn't it, you should have stayed to the end!". Vida to the ARTE executive: "It suits your public policy, doesn't it?" "That's not true!" Vida: "Yes, it is true." Whereupon the ARTE executive and the Goethe Institute director turned and walked away.

That is the face of so-called 'TV culture' in Europe today - with its commercial complicity, its abuse of power, exclusivity, arrogance, rudeness, and total disdain for any democratic dialogue. As I write elsewhere, one would hope that the crisis is sufficiently obvious, based on what TV pumps out; apparently it isn't - at least not in terms of developing active social opposition by the public. I therefore hope that this look at the bullying face of European TV will help to sharpen the image of what is really happening.

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© Peter Watkins 2016