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10.03.2003 | author: Virgil Stefan Nitulescu
Culture in the audiovisual media: A burden?
Policies for Culture Journal, Spring 2003
Virgil Stefan Nitulescu
is councilor to the Committee for culture, arts, mass-media of the Lower House of the Romanian Parliament.
One may say that ‘culture in the media’ is a non-sense, because media is a part of culture, so, media is culture. But not for Romanian common opinion – and laws are made to reflect this vision: that of the electorate. ‘Culture’ is understood, usually, as classical literature, music and fine arts. This is the opinion of the electorate, and thus the opinion of the politicians elected, by this electorate, in the Parliament.

During the first six or seven years after 1989, audiovisual media were conceived (as were the entire mass media) almost exclusively as a powerful tool in modelling public opinion and in the political battles. It was, in fact, a prolongation of the role the State television had during the anticommunist uprising in December 1989. Almost no one thought of radio and television as cultural media. Having said that, when the first law organising the former State radio and television (promulgated in 1994) was drafted, a special provision for culture was included: the two restructured public companies (SRR and SRT) were asked to ‘promote, with proficiency and to high standards, the values of the Romanian language, of authentic – national and universal – cultural and scientific creativity, the values of the national minorities, as well as the values of democratic, civil, moral and sporting life’. The two public companies had to present annual reports to the Parliament. These were good occasions for the MPs to ask the boards of the two companies to increase the time and the quality of cultural programmes. Public radio had a channel (Programme 2) – broadcasting 16 hours, daily – which, from 1996, was called Cultural. On a similar basis, public television pretended that its second channel had a marked cultural content. However, the two parties (the Parliament and the two companies) did not have exactly the same understanding of the word ‘culture’. SRT, especially, had the tendency to consider almost any entertainment as a part of ‘culture’.

The situation got worse after 1996. A real boom in the private broadcasting industry (especially from 1995 onwards) increased the need for advertising on a, still, small advertising market. The managers started to look to the figures offered by the audience ratings. The channels became more and more commercial, the news and movies more and more violent, and prime time was reserved for cheap entertainment. If public radio has managed to keep its main characteristics, public television started to look more and more similar to the private channels: more commercial. The MPs made an attempt to correct this trend, in 1998, taking advantage of several amendments brought to the law regulating the public companies of radio and television. Thus, the two companies were forced to include in their programmes at least 51% ‘European works' (1), of which at least 30% had to be Romanian works (that included programmes in national minorities’ languages). 35% of the Romanian programmes had to have cultural content. However, no definition was given for ‘cultural content’; thus the provision is, in fact, useless.

Trying to cope with the permanent critics of the way in which the public television was flooded with commercial programmes, SRT decided, in 2000, to establish a third channel: Cultural. The channel started to broadcast in 2001, with 4-6 hours daily to begin with, expanded now to 110 hours weekly.

Everybody assumes that all the programmes of the two public channels called Cultural are filled, fully, with cultural content, though no analyses of this are available. In addition, one may take into consideration that some of the programmes broadcast by the other public channels (News, Radio 3 and Musical – George Enescu – at the SRR – and Romania 1 and TVR2 (2)) are, in fact, ‘cultural’ programmes.

A general law regulates the activity of the entire audiovisual media. The Audiovisual Law was promulgated in 1992, and was replaced with a new one in 2002. The first one had no special cultural provisions. The second one has some general provisions, such as the following: ‘Political and social pluralism, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, information, education and public entertainment are accomplished and ensured by the transmission and retransmission of programme services observing the freedoms and fundamental rights of the person’. The National Audiovisual Council (that is the autonomous regulatory body for the Romanian audiovisual landscape) ‘must ensure the following as the guarantor of the public interest in the field of audio-visual communications: (…) the protection of the Romanian culture and language, as well as of the culture and languages of national minorities’. The private channels – be they radio or television – have no obligation to include a prescribed amount of ‘cultural’ programmes. Moreover, most of them are not interested in offering ‘cultural’ or ‘non-cultural’ programmes; the only important criterion is that of the rating obtained by the programme. This leads to an almost entirely non-cultural content (if we are not counting the movies). In view of the fact that Romania has a significant number of radio and television stations (3), with a huge range (considering Romania’s 21.6 million inhabitants) of opportunities for the viewers, it means that most of the population watches programmes with almost no cultural content at all. Most of the cable operators, for instance, are not interested by programmes such as Arte and Mezzo (which are not subtitled in Romanian); however, we should note the fact that some of the most popular TV programmes seen on cable are Discovery and Animal Planet (both of them, with subtitled programmes (4).

Since 1999, a new debate has begun in the Parliament: that of preserving the Romanian language and ‘defending’ it from ‘assault’ by foreign languages. A bill that was initiated then is going to be approved in 2003. It has implications in several fields, including the audiovisual. It demands that speakers pronounce correctly the Romanian language and the languages of the national minorities (5). It also binds the broadcasters to translate into Romanian all foreign words and expression (written or spoken). While the law has not, yet, been promulgated, the National Audiovisual Council has already started a campaign to ‘clean’ the programme from bad language, taking into consideration one of its legal duties: that of ‘monitoring correct expression in the Romanian language and in the languages of national minorities’.

It is worth noting that the eleven members of the Council are appointed by the Parliament (proposed by the political parties, the President of Romania and the Government) and so they bear a political mark, in spite of the fact that they are not allowed to have any political involvement. That is why the members’ involvement in debating the way Romanian language is spoken on radio and television was perceived as a political debate: the Council was accused of censorship. The members defended themselves, using a monitoring report for 2001. The errors cover the full range of grammatical fields: orthoepy, morphology, syntax, and vocabulary. The Council has issued a recommendation, asking broadcasters to improve the use of the Romanian language in their programmes. This initiative was more than welcomed by the Parliament. Starting in 1994 - when, complying with the Law’s requirements, the National Audiovisual Council started to present yearly reports to the Parliament –, the MPs had issued, year after year, at least one recurrent observation: that of asking the Council to force the broadcasters to increase the number of cultural programmes and their quality. The Council made recommendations regarding the use of the Romanian language, as well as another set of recommendations asking the broadcasters to reduce the violent content in the audiovisual programmes.

One of the most important international debates, in the last two decades, has been that relating to the ‘cultural exception’ asked by the European Union states, in connection with the Council Directive Television without frontiers (as amended by the Directive 97/36/EC of the European Parliament), during the Uruguay Round of the GATS negotiations. However, almost nothing of these debates was an object of internal discussion, in adopting the new Audiovisual Law. Thus, Romania has complied with the obligation of broadcasting European works, in at least 51% of the total broadcasting time (excluding news, sports events, games, advertising, teletext services and teleshopping), starting with the date of accession to the European Union (expected to be the 1 January 2007). However, most of the MPs who are members of the Culture, Arts and Mass Media Committees in the Parliaments are hoping that this provision will increase the number and the quality of ‘cultural’ programmes, reducing the percentage of cheap entertainment. It is, in my opinion, a vain hope, as long as the most popular programmes broadcast by the Romanian TV stations are Romanian works (under the definition provided by the Law), produced or not under a foreign license, but still of a very low artistic and moral quality.

After more than a decade of free legal broadcasting, it is obvious that, in spite of all the political pressure, the Romanian media consider the cultural programmes to be a burden for their daily schedules. On the other side it is true that there was no public debate on the meaning of ‘culture’ and the result is that some of the programmes would be considered of high enough cultural content elsewhere – including in the European Union – but not in Romania; and there is a good chance that some of these programmes would be a part of the stations with a high commercial value.


(1) No definition was given for “European” works.
(2) Radio 3 is devoted to the young audience (up to 35 years) and Musical – George Enescu, bearing the name of the greatest Romanian composer, is reserved, mostly, for classical music. Romania 1 is a generalist channel, while TVR2 has a mixed profile (mostly, for an audience up to about 35 years, including sports, arts, movies and games). Each of the two public companies has, also, a channel, called International, broadcast for listeners and viewers outside Romania. Though they are not, officially, exempt from the ‘cultural content’ rule, nobody is, in fact, counting their contribution to the general landscape of the Romanian public channels. In addition, each of the two companies has a series of local stations (7 for the SRR, 4 for the SRT).
(3) The last official figures are those from the 25 July 2002, when there were granted a total of:
- 308 licences for radio;
- 120 licences for television;
- 2217 licences for cable television (CATV);
- 10 licences for satellite radio;
- 22 licences for satellite television.
(4) The most viewed programmes in important Romanian cities (all of those with more than 200,000 inhabitants), in the span of time from 20 January – 16 February, 2003, are:
1. PRO TV (national private channel, owned by an American company: CME); 2. Antena 1 (national private channel); 3. Romania 1 (national public channel); 4. Prima TV (national private channel); 5. Acasă TV (national private thematic channel – telenovelas and soap operas – owned by an American company: CME); 6. TVR2 (national public channel); 7. Realitatea TV (national private thematic channel – news); 8. B1 TV (national private channel, co-operating with the FOX network); 9. HBO; 10. Tele 7 abc (national private channel, co-operating with Deutsche Welle); 11. Atomic TV (national private thematic channel – pop music); 12. Discovery a.s.o. In this ranking, TVR Cultural, the public specialised channel, is placed in 32nd position.
(5) There are 17 national minorities officially represented in the Parliament, the most important being: Hungarians, Rroma, Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Turks, Serbians, Tartars and Slovakians. Most of these minorities have special programmes, in their languages, at the public radio and television stations.

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