Television turnaround

  • 2002-08-15
Uldis Grava, the new director of Latvia's public television, steels himself and his channel for an election, Eurovision and the financial challenges of the future. Interview by Jorgen Johansson.

After going through general directors as if it were playing musical chairs, public broadcaster Latvijas Televizija finally plumped for a quasi-outsider to take the helm: American-Latvian Uldis Grava.

A 30-year veteran of the news business, Grava is a graduate of Columbia University in New York who spent most of his career at the U.S. National Newspaper Association, eventually becoming vice president.

For the past decade, Grava has worked all over Europe and Asia, marketing the services of Radio Free Europe to local radio stations.

Your first year in the job and it's an election year. Do you fear being subjected to pressure from political parties during the pre-election campaign?

Before the final vote when my selection took place, a lot of political parties called me and said, 'Well, we need to check you out and give you some instruction.'

So I had to give them a civics lesson. Political parties can influence the Parliament. But the radio and broadcast council really represents the interests of society and (parties) should have no influence. Therefore, there was no need for me to meet with them. I want to make sure that we treat everyone fairly. I will not succumb to any political pressure.

How do you intend to cover the pre-election campaign?

All the previous elections have been based on the popularity of the so-called locomotives. The politicians who head the parties. We are going to have 15 debates, one for each of the 14 ministries and one for the major contenders in the election.

In each of these debates, we want parties to submit different people so that the voting constituency can see whether or not a political party has the knowledge and the depth to form a government. This, I think, is a unique way of exposing parties' strengths and weaknesses.

LTV has often been accused of taking up too much space from the advertising market here. For a company funded by the state, this could be interpreted as the state interfering with private business. How would you comment on this?

We are not state television. If we were state television, I would agree with you. We are public television. We are not fully funded by the state and perhaps it shouldn't be. The standard for Europe is that public television is provided enough funding so that it doesn't need to rely on advertising revenue. There are subscription fees, state subsidies and license fees.

Of all public networks in Europe, Latvia has the smallest support from the state - 53 percent of our income comes from state subsidies.

Should public television have educational purposes? Can you offer that?

Yes, but who's going to pay for it? The advertisers are not going to pay for it, so it has to come from the state.

This is the argument that the commercial stations use: you get money from the state so you should not have the right to have advertising. But on a free market, we should also be able to have this income.

If television is supposed to be educational, why are all films and programs in foreign languages dubbed into Latvian?

The first of our two channels have to be exclusively in the Latvian language by law and this causes some really bad transmissions of movies where we have two languages at the same time making it incomprehensible, and then Russian subtitles underneath which also spoils the visual image. My ultimate dream is to run the same film on the second channel at the same time but keep it in the original language.

What sort of major challenges do you see ahead?

LTV is facing great financial difficulties and the previous people who have served in my position have constantly been trying to tighten the belt. And eventually we came to a point where it led to worse and worse programs. Advertising revenue went down because the value of our product went down. This is not the way to go. We have to regain the confidence of the viewer and the only way to do this is by improving the programs. This cannot be done immediately and will require a lot of money. So I will probably go deeply into debt, but with the idea that if we can improve programming, we can increase advertising revenue and be successful. The Latvian public deserves something better than it is getting from public television.

How is planning next year's Eurovision Song Contest going?

Eurovision is not a threat to us. It's a great opportunity. The cost of putting up Eurovision, 7 million lats (12 million euros), is in terms of a budget equal to our annual budget. There is a little bit of money coming from the European Broadcast Union, the state has supported us, and we have been persuasive enough to say that just as in Tallinn there is not enough technical equipment available so this has to be imported from Sweden, Denmark or whatever.

You can blow a couple of million lats on that easily, but we have managed to persuade the government that for a million more, we can buy this equipment. So this would be an investment in Latvia's future.

When the Latvian song festival comes next year, we'll be able to cover that much better at a lower cost. Everyone has been supportive - the government, the city of Riga and the city of Ventspils, where Latvia's local song festival will be held to choose a representative for Eurovision next year.

We are very happy that this will be a Baltic project. We can learn much from the great success they had in Estonia. We are working very closely with them, and we have actually put Johan Padaam on the payroll as well. He was the executive producer of the Estonian contest and now he is working with us as well.