Broadcasting in Serbia is about to change. In July 2015 the country will switch to digital television, one of the last European countries to do so and three years behind schedule. The delay was due to a combination of the economic crisis and two consecutive elections. And when it happens, rather than leading to more choice, digital switchover is likely to force Serbia’s overcrowded media market to shrink, as local broadcasters compete for a limited number of digital licenses.
With 133 registered television stations serving a population of only 7.7 million, Serbia has more TV channels, per capita, than anywhere else in Europe. Local or regional stations account for the vast majority – 128 out of the 133 registered stations. Television is popular: Serbs watch an average of five hours per day – more than almost any other nation. However, the market is saturated. Broadcasters are struggling against decreasing advertising revenues and competition from digital technology and the internet.
Serbia’s total media advertising market was worth 95 million euros in 2013, one of the lowest in the region and down from approximately160 million euros in 2011/12. It is not enough to go around. Only one of the country’s five national TV broadcasters, the commercial “Pink Corporation”, made a profit last year, according to the 2013 Business Registers Agency report. Both of Serbia’s public service broadcasters, Radio Television Serbia (RTS) and Radio Television Vojvodina (RTV), are losing money. They are funded by a combination of subscriptionsand advertising. In 2012 the public broadcasters collected less than 30% of their subscriptions, compared to 70% paying in 2006, (the subscription is collected through a voluntary supplement to the electricity bill). While advertising on public broadcasters is limited by law to just half the amount on commercial channels or 10% of airtime, even that hasn’t helped redress the losses of most commercial channels.
All TV channels are facing the challenge posed by the internet to their popularity and their advertising revenues. These challenges will increase as the internet develops. More than half of all Serbian households own a computer (55.2%), while 47.5% have internet access according to the Statistics Agency of the Republic of Serbia in 2012. The risk is that under new circumstances, neither centralized broadcasting nor a mass audience will survive.
Research shows that audiences are using both old (mass) and the new (digital) media to obtain information, entertainment and self-education. Sources of information used by Serbian citizens of all ages are: television (69%), newspapers (8.5%), friends and acquaintances (7.9%), the Internet (7.4%), radio (4.3%), (CeSid, 2009).
Serbia’s consumers also like to use the internet to access traditional media: 95% of internet users read news and 80% of them listen to radio online. More than three in four of those surveyed said they watch television online. Increasing numbers use several media forms at the same time – they surf the internet, read the press and watch television, according to Mediascope Europe.
The internet has forced advertisers to become more sophisticated in the way they create and distribute advertising messages. The rise of “listen economics” (the economy of listening or discussing) is making marketing more interactive and responsive. Television and radio are less suited to this form of advertising, which is based on appearing to offer helpful information to consumers about products, rather than simply persuading them to buy.
Viewers who use their computers, mobile phones and tablets to watch television are posing another challenge to the traditional advertising model. Digital natives believe that services offered on the Internet must not be interrupted or burdened by additional advertising. “We should have in mind that the users of the media have never cared much about advertisements, as the data has shown for decades… and now a whole generation has come to the scene that believes it to be its birthright to receive free online content without being interrupted by advertisements” (Garfield, 2009:16). Those who insist on such content not only disregard the freedom of choice, but will before long face ad banner blockers or spam filters intended to eliminate ad messages. After all, when was the last time any of us clicked a banner accompanying the content that we were looking for?
In its search for survival, Serbian television has so far appeared to have two main strategies: to increase interactivity with its audiences by creating more “reality TV”, and to increase the quality and size of picture and sound after digitalization, in the form of High Definition Television (HDTV).
Commercial television has never in its history offered more entertainment, low-value content and trivia. At first, the audience seemed interested in joining the flashy carnival. For a while, quizzes, reality show programs, music events, infotainment and celebrity lifestyles ensured the survival of commercial broadcasting. This strategy is being used by both commercial and public service broadcasters in Serbia. Licenses for various “reality TV” formats have been snapped up by public broadcasters too. Instead of placing an emphasis of culture, education and art, public broadcasters are aiming for the lowest taste common denominator.
The second strategy is to take advantage of the transition to digital production, distribution and reception of programs. However, it is unclear whether digitalization and the introduction of high-definition TV can offer a safety net for the broadcasters.
The audience is promised that HDTV would bring better picture quality, more life-like colors, stereo sound, and bigger TV screens, allowing an entire wall to be covered. However, this strategy has a weak point. The increasing size of TV screens diminishes their mobility. The larger the screen the less mobile it becomes. Contemporary users no longer want to waste time in front of their TV sets. This is why they watch television on their mobile phones, tablets and laptops.
The author believes that (digital) high-definition television will be used only sporadically in exceptional circumstances, such as for spectacular music, sport and film events. However, irregular audiences and occasional paid advertising cannot sustain the existence of classic commercial broadcasting companies. Many Serbian broadcasters which are already struggling financially might be forced out of business very soon, right after the digital switch over.
CeSid, (2009), ReSOURCE research on a representative sample of 4,515 households, CESID: Belgrade.
Garfield B. (2009),The Chaos Scenario, Stielstra Publishing.
For more information on The Listening Economy, see The Social Media Revolution, by Tom Smith International Journal of Market Research Vol 51, Issue 4
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