TV Nova: a symbol of Czech post-communist transformation

Photo: Jiří Suchomel, ČRo

This week marks 20 years since the launch of TV Nova, the first Czech commercial television channel. A huge success since the beginning, it introduced viewers to new forms of entertainment and news coverage. The station later suffered from a conflict between its US investors and its CEO which ended in arbitration, marking marked the end of an era for TV Nova. In this edition of Marketplace, I talk to leading media studies expert Jan Jirák of Charles University about the station’s rise and fall and its lasting impact on the Czech media scene.

Photo: Jiří Suchomel
“In the first period of its existence, the main reason behind its success was the fact that it was sold as something new. People who ran TV Nova in those days introduced new ways of marketing which was quite important and we tend to forget about it.

“TV Nova CEO Vladimír Železný succeeded in involving the public in the process. For instance, there was a contest about the name of the new station which some lady won. People really identified with the feeling that something new was coming.”

And did something new really come? What kind of programmes did TV Nova offer, and were they really different from what people know from its only competitor at the time, the public broadcaster Czech TV?

“TV Nova was heralded as a private television, not something that offered new things but things available and accepted in the West, whatever that means.

“You could see a traditional schedule of full-format TV channel with evening news, feature films, TV series, soft erotica programmes, quite interesting public affairs programme, and so on.

“But everything was done in a fast pace which was new for people. But I think the main thing was that it was associated with the marketed message, ‘this is the real TV’”.

Do you think the fact also played a role that it was a private commercial station launched at a time when the society was undergoing a tremendous transition from communism to capitalism? Did people identify with it in this way?

“They did indeed. We should also keep in mind that in those days, people had no idea of what public service media means. Czech TV was associated with the pre-1989 state television. The concept of public service was not present in people’s minds.

“This was somehow understood as the evidence that we are developing into a normal, western-type society. That was an important aspect of it.”

It has been argued that Nova, with its popular low-brow programming, ended the illusion that Czechs were a very sophisticated nation. Do you agree?

“Frankly, I actually don’t agree with that completely. I think we underestimate the fact the society itself was changing. By the mid-1990s, the rhythm of everyday life had already changed compared to the 1970s and 80s. People had to struggle to keep their jobs; they faced much faster work pace and much longer work hours, and so on.

“So there was increasing space for entertainment with a strong aspect of escapism. Because you work had, you need to rest, and in this moment Nova came and offered programmes that were truly and clearly escapist. It helped people relax.

“It was not only evidence that Czech society was not as sophisticated as we used to believe it was. But it also showed that the rhythm of life had changed.”

When we look at the ways TV Nova covered news, people often say it introduced tabloid journalism to television. What impact do you think Nova’s new coverage had on Czech media?

“I believe the main impact was in that other media began caring about shares and ratings. That was the main shift in the managers’ mentality. Of course, it was a deep shock for the public broadcaster, Czech TV, which from one day to the next, faced the fact they were not so important and attractive to people, and had to think about changing their communication strategies.

And frankly, Nova was not so tabloid in the beginning. It just did much quicker news but had almost the same agenda with similar topics, and only slowly shifted towards the tabloid format over a year or two. But in the beginning, it was a real alternative to public service news coverage.”

Difficult times for TV Nova came in the late 1990s when the man who ran it, Vladimír Želený, did something that ended in an international arbitration which cost the Czech Republic 10 billion crowns.

Mr Železný has ever since defended the move, arguing nothing illegal occurred; its critics however believe it was an attempt to get rid of the US investors and take over the station himself. What significance did this have for the station as such?

“All I can say is that it was the end of TV Nova’s pioneer years. Ever since the arbitration, Nova’s lost its position, and has become a standard commercial TV producer.”

When you look at the 20 years of TV Nova, how do you think it has influenced Czech television and media in general?

“I think that in the beginning, Nova helped change the formal way TV was done in this country where the heritage of the state-run television was too strong. Nova re-defined the situation completely and opened the door to new formats, ways of doing journalism, entertainment, and so on.

“Nova definitely introduced new ways of media marketing that were unknown here, including the mentality of shares and rating. In a way, it was a small Northcliffe revolution that happened here.

“Nova also influenced political communication. Because of Nova, politician became aware of the importance of being seen. On the other hand, Nova contributed to the tabloidization of Czech media in general. So it’s two-fold heritage.”