A Little Bit About Public Television: Czech Diary

Nouneh Sarkissian

Managing Director of Media Initiatives Center

The history of Czech television (hence called Public Television) begins on January 1, 1992. Shortly before that, in late 1991, the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia passed a law on television. The law separated two types of broadcasters: public and “patent,” allowing private channels to be created. Two months later, immediately after the partition of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Czech division of Federal Television was transformed into Czech Television.

It went through a long journey to transform itself from a communist party’s ideological tool into a state-run mass media and then into a public broadcaster.

Two public broadcasters, Czech Television and Czech Radio, exist separately. Talks about a possible union have not yet received the support of either side. The 2,900 employees of Czech television provide for 74% of their own production across six channels.

ČT1 is the first multi-format family channel, which is represented by a variety of programs: soap operas, news programs, entertainment and children’s programs, performances, music programs. ČT1 is the second most-watched channel in the Czech Republic. In 2019, its audience reached 16.5%.

ČT2 is also a multi-format channel, but it differs in its target audience. It is aimed at a mature audience with quite high demands and expectations. This channel can be positioned as an educational one, the main strategy of which is to enlighten and help to redefine the problems of modern society. It is hence ČT2 that performs the task of the broadcaster: to talk about the lives of different layers and groups of the country. The channel broadcasts programs about national, ethnic minorities, civil society and spiritual communities. There are many historical and educational series. The genre axis of the channel is the production of documentaries, both Czech and foreign.

ČT24 is a niche news channel. In a sense, it is the center of Czech television. It is hence on this channel that the audience’s attention is focused on important events in the country. In addition to national news, it also shows local and international news programs, special topical news programs on economics, culture, science, current interviews (Studio 24), and journalistic investigations. The channel is constantly updated, new sections and topics appear regularly.

ČT24 is responsible for broadcasting information across Czech television. It provides not only the main “Události” (events) news broadcasts of the republic, which are shown simultaneously on channels ČT24 and ČT1, but also sports broadcasting, cultural news, and even children’s information programs.

The ČT24 team prepares unique newscasts in sign language for people with impaired hearing. It’s not about the translation to sign language, but about the programs that were originally created in sign language and only then “translated.”

The news service has studios in four cities of the republic and correspondents in 11 countries around the world.

“We have to produce information that private channels will not produce. We need to cover local and international issues. 36% of our main news coverage is international information. Virtually everyone is now reporting on the coronavirus, but information about Armenia, for example, can only be found with us,” said Zdeněk Šáma, director of ČT’s news and sports broadcasting.

The fourth, ČTsport, is a classic sports channel that covers the entire sports palette: handball and hockey, mini-football and basketball, Czech and international championship games and international competitions, and has editions of “Sports in the Region.”

The fifth frequency is shared by two channels: children’s and cultural (ČT:D and ČTart). The children’s broadcast runs from 6 am to 8 pm, then the broadcast goes to ČTart. The children’s channel is aimed at children of all ages and is very diverse: children’s soap operas, cartoons, news, fun lessons, educational programs on classical music and much more.

The children participate in the production, they are filmed in soap operas, make animations, create news, learn and teach. And that makes the channel especially popular for its target audiences.

The ČTart channel reports on almost every field of art and culture: architecture, design, photography, film and television drama, and music. The programs include both Czech and foreign productions, showcasing the best works from the television archive and cultural news. ČTart’s audience is quite small, in 2019 it barely reached 1.13%. But keep in mind that the channel is on the same scale as all similar niche channels, such as the BBC or Arte.

The audience appreciates the uniqueness of the channel (75%), the educational value, and the Czech television company considers the content of the channel to be an important component of its mission.

The TV company has branches in other cities in the country, in Ostrava and Brno.

Surface digital broadcasting is just one of the platforms for disseminating Czech television content. 24 hours a day, any program can be found on the satellite, on the Internet, or on mobile platforms. Czech television provides all related services: HbbTV, Teletext ČT, Teletext Express, EPG, photo, SSU.

The level of trust in Czech television is quite high. “Czech television is for everyone, 55% of the people trust it, and in the case of private channels, that number ranges from 25 to 30%,” said Jan Bednar, Former Chairman of Czech Television Council.

ČT during the days of the epidemic

March 2020 will go down in history for an unprecedented rise in television viewing, even a leap, in countries that have collided with COVID19. In the Czech Republic, television consumption has reached its highest level in 17 years. According to Nielsen-Admosphere, which measures television viewing in the Czech Republic, in the two weeks after March 10, when the government gradually began to close all businesses and entertainment venues, average news coverage viewing times reached 67 minutes a day, twice the previous figure.

ČT24 became the fourth most-watched channel in the country in March. Its programs were watched by almost 6.6 million people or 77.5% of the adult citizens of the Czech Republic. The audience’s level of satisfaction reached 8.8 out of a 10-point scale.

The coronavirus epidemic has confirmed the important role of Czech television. A study by Kantar CZ found that for two-thirds of respondents, ČT became a major source of information during the days of the virus. And only 7% of the population received information from other channels. Nine out of ten viewers perceived the news about the current crisis provided by Czech TV to be important, reliable, objective, clear and understandable.

According to the Nielsen Admosphere survey, the ČT24 web platform is one of the most reliable sources in the Czech Republic. If last year it had an average of 1.25 million monthly visitors, in March this year the number of visitors tripled.

In an interview with Czech Radio, media expert Josef Šlerk spoke about the problems of journalism during the epidemic, citing the ability of the Czech Public Television and Radio to overcome the situation. “They responded quickly and offered new content, more adapted to the conditions of self-isolation.”

When children do not go to school, school comes to their home. Already on March 16, UčiTelka (the name is a combination of the words “teacher” and “television”) appeared on ČT2, addressed to primary school students. The creators of the series wanted to help children overcome the difficulties of distance learning.

Every morning, at 9 o’clock, there was a broadcast on air, which was conducted by talented teachers. Students, who were the same age as the audience, took part, which made the series attractive. The series covered topics such as mathematics, Czech language, environment and even physical education.

The physical education TV series was hosted by famous athletes, both world and Olympic champions. The curricula also appeared on ČT1. They were designed for high school students and helped them prepare for final exams.

The interactive website became a part of this project, where you could get homework assignments and ask teachers questions.

Parents could edit the program by contacting the site’s authors. An entire educational platform was born, which became supportive not only for children but also for parents and teachers.

On March 23, a new channel, ČT3, was launched on Czech television, which was also a “response” to the contagion. The program was created to help the most vulnerable group of the population in the current situation, the elderly, who were forced into social isolation. The broadcast of the channel starts at 9 in the morning and ends at 5:25 in the evening. The channel is based on the rich archive fund of Czech television – old movies, concerts, comedy programs. Thematic shows and episodes broadcasting basic information are also included.

“In this difficult situation, we want to serve another large group in our audience. We want the viewers to have high spirits and the programs to evoke pleasant memories,” commented Petr Dvořák, General Director of Czech Television.

The creation of the channel was made possible by the deliberate redistribution of funds and resources, due to the reduction of many programs. The leadership of the Czech television responded flexibly to the change of preferences.

On April 8, Czech Radio prepared a reportage on a new project, saying that Czech television had begun shooting a new sitcom, “Love in the Time of Corona,” which played on Marquez’s famous novel “Love in the Time of the Cholera.”

The creators of the series had a hard time working under various restrictions. At the heart of the story are two families and two homes. The first is a divorced couple trying to solve their problems in isolation. The second is a lonely old man and a young man. The boy’s parents stayed abroad because of quarantine, and the two heroes, who happened to be together, now have to take care of each other. The series premiered on May 4.

According to producer Tomáš Baldýnský, “It was necessary to build a whole system of filming so that few people could participate in the shooting process. It was the skeleton of the film crew. We had to find actors who live together so that we can shoot them without masks.”

An empty building was rented for filming to exclude contact between the film crew and the residents. Robot cameras were used with remote controls so that even the operators were not in the shooting area. The whole group worked with masks.

The masks which were used while working during the pandemic are a unique part of the history of Czech Television. In the Czech Republic, wearing masks in public is mandatory. In the absence of a mask, a fine of up to 20,000 CZK (approximately 725 euros) is incurred.

Even members of the government and ministers had to pay the fine several times. All hosts and guests of the programs, the heads of the state, the children participating in the programs were also on air with masks.

After watching a few shows, this rather strange scene became commonplace. It was interesting to look at the people in the shot with colorful, mostly “homemade” masks.

Only at the end of April were the hosts allowed to not wear masks if they were alone in the studio. In this way, Czech television not only informs, educates and entertains different segments of society during the epidemic but also acts as a strict model of behavior, an example, serves, makes discipline visible. And that helped fight the infection.

Nouneh Sarkissian

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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