Public broadcaster Czech TV to lose commercials in favour of higher licence fees

Licence fees for public broadcasters Czech TV and Czech Radio have always been the subject of heated debate in Parliament, especially in 1997, the last time that fees were raised. For the last eight years every Czech household has paid the equivalent of 54 US dollars per year to Czech Radio and TV. Now, that appears set to change: on Wednesday lawmakers agreed to dramatically raise Czech TV's licence fees to almost double over the next three years (while Czech Radio gets a slight increase).

Other big changes are also in store: with the exception of important cultural or sporting events all commercials on Czech TV will disappear. Earlier I spoke to media analyst Jan Culik of Glasgow University, how he viewed the coming change.

"It's [always been] a question of whether a public broadcaster 'should' have advertising. The BBC, for example, doesn't actually have any advertising on any of its channels, with the exception of the World Service. And this is one of the points: when you listen to public service broadcasting you don't have to be annoyed by advertising for alcohol or cars or other things, ads that are basically very repetitive and an incredible source of annoyance. Having said that, there is a case to be made for small countries, like Ireland, for instance, that have a small population and are not able to generate enough money from licence fees; in cases like that some advertising is quite justified. But, Ireland has had very, very little compared to what Czech TV has had. {In the Czech Republic's case] I do not think that there should be advertising on a public service broadcaster to such an incredible degree."

Many are likely to be pleased by the eventual disappearance of ads from Czech TV, but it remains a question whether the new rise will be enough to support the broadcaster's budget. Some, like government MP Tatana Fischerova worry it will not, one reason why she did not back the bill in the end. Jan Culik agrees that it was a mistake, for example, that Czech lawmakers did not guarantee further rises to match inflation, an attitude he describes as "trying to have your cake and eat it too".

"Czech Parliament, I have to say, is behaving slightly hypocritically: on the one hand they want quality public service television and radio, on the other hand they refuse to pay for it. I think this is a kind of syndrome that harks back to communist times: many of the MPs feel that what is state or what is public service is kind of second rate, this is not true. Normally, in the west European countries public service is regarded as higher quality, as the model to be emulated by the commercial stations. Not the other way around."

Will the loss in commercials benefit Czech TV's rivals, the dominant private broadcasters TV Nova and TV Prima? Certainly in the short term the stations will gain a definite boost, swallowing up additional income worth a billion crowns per year. But, eventually they too will have to face the reality of coming digitalisation, which will break open the market, bringing down cost for advertisers and spreading ads over far more channels. At most they have been given an advantage, Jan Culik says, that will only last a couple years.