Bridging the gap 

14 June 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

As Warsaw Pact tanks appeared on the streets of Budapest, the government of Hungary appealed by radio for help and support from a western world distracted by the Suez Crisis. The relatively few pictures of the crushing of the liberalising regime of Imre Nagy available today is in part due to the fact that Hungary had no television service at the time.

Television was launched in Hungary in 1957. At the time of the invasion in 1956, the former stock exchange building in Szabadsag Ter was still in the process of being converted into Hungary’s first television studios. When it arrived, television in Hungary was broadcast six days a week during Communism. Oddly, it wasn’t broadcast on Mondays until Communism ended, with the sole exception of the day the first Hungarian Cosmonaut was launched into space.

The staple of Hungarian Television programming was basically theatrical. Popular musicals, farces and former music hall acts such as the comedian Geza Hofi, the Max Miller of Hungarian comedy, still very much alive and working to this day, were the mainstays.

Off-peak time, folk music and dancing and arts programmes, focusing on folk-culture, nothing too bourgeois, was the staple fare of Hungary’s state service ‘MTV’.

In the sixties, dire variety shows with orchestra in the studio wearing frill fronted shirts playing “groovy” Eurovisionesque arrangements of watered down western pop, awful geometric set designs and so on, came into vogue – this sort of show is still very much in evidence on neighbouring Serbia’s state television service.

The news during Communism largely consisted of successes in Communist countries and disasters everywhere else.

A second channel was added in 1968. This was, bizarrely, a carbon copy of the first as far as programme type and mix went but with different types of programming scheduled at different times to that on the first channel.

Colour came in 1976, though was relatively slow to spread. My wife’s father had the first colour TV in our village in 1980. The MESECAM system was used; this was switched to PAL in 1990.

The type of colour television that my wife’s father originally had was Russian-built and known as a “bomb” TV as so many exploded. Fortunately, his didn’t explode, though many in the village did! Better colour televisions of a less incendiary nature were soon coming out of the Hungarian ORION television factory in Debrecen.

The first satellite television service for Hungarians started in 1996. This was an odd service, as it was designed to cover the historic “Great Hungary”, what was hacked to pieces in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

The service was a kind of Hungarian World Service Television, and was funded partly by advertising and partly by the Hungarian Kulugy Minsterium or Foreign Office. It broadcasts from the Hotbird satelite and is run not by Hungarian Television as one might expect, but by Hungarian Radio, a separate organisation.

National commercial Television started in 1997. This, as much in Hungarian broadcasting seems to be, was odd, as two frequencies were advertised. One of them was new, the other was already in use – Magyar Televizio’s second channel was kicked onto the Hotbird satellite – a satellite dish in Hungary is a status symbol, and carries none of the negative connotations still clinging to satellite TV in the UK.

However, to make it fair to both new stations, the channel taking the former MTV2 frequency varied from transmitter to transmitter, preventing one of the networks inheriting a ready-made audience. On our local transmitter we found MTV2 replaced by M-RTL – who weren’t ready to start broadcasting and showed nothing but pop videos for a month!

The arrival of commercial television was a real culture shock to Hungarians and the inability to compete with the new arrivals has led to Magyar Televizio being technically insolvent for quite some time.

It may even have to sell its studios on the prime Szabadsag Ter site to cover the debts – the equivalent of the BBC being forced to sell Broadcasting House. One reason is that commercial TV raises the stakes.

For example, when I first came to Hungary in 1996 a large cheese, a hot water boiler for your bathroom or a box of “Flintstones” chocolate bars were considered good prizes on Szerencekerek (Wheel of Fortune).

Three years later they offered a car – and you could win 40 million Hungarian Forints (almost 100,000 quid) on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. Also, commercial TV can get lower down than MTV could manage.

M-RTL experimented with German style soft porn, though that didn’t go down very well in this comparatively conservative country. However, it brought strippers back for the New Year’s programming this year.

Perhaps the best programme on Hungarian Television is M-RTL’s “Heti Hetes” (Weekly Seven) in which seven celebrities (comedians and journalists) discuss the week’s news.

This programme has been called the most shameful thing on television by the Prime Minister Viktor Orban and unfortunately many Hungarians, particularly older ones, think it’s disgraceful to talk ill of their leaders – the old Communist reflexes still persist even in “Young Democrats”.

They feel that they should be automatically respected for their position alone rather than earn respect for their actions. Even some teenagers with former Communist parents find talking of politicians with anything other than reverend tones disgusting.

“Heti Hetes” is often sued and castigated by politicians, but is probably the most important programme on TV as far as nurturing democracy in Hungary.

Magyar Televizio has very heavy public service commitments, and is the only company doing regional production and owning regional studios, but its high cost base is regularly compared unfavourably in parliament with the commercial broadcasters, which are cross-subsidised by their parent organisations.

However MTV is fighting back. It is now the most stylish broadcaster here after its recent relaunch, and plays up the importance of its regional studios and in-vision continuity team for all they’re worth.

MTV positioning itself on higher ground and is not fighting for the lowbrow audience, but for a more cultured and intelligent one. Not so silly as it sounds, as Hungarians are very well educated.

The fiendishly difficult questions on the Hungarian “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” can make the British version seem like a quiz series for five-year-olds!

Transmission of Hungarian programmes is done by a company called “Antenna Hungaria” – two years ago they sent out a booklet with a map of all the Hungarian transmitters to every address in Hungary… and I only went and lost my copy!

Magyar Televizio is funded by a license based on a residential address system. Homeowners pay – whether they have a TV or not – monthly. The postman collects the license fee money from the doorstep and issues a little receipt.

ORTT, the Hungarian equivalent of the ITC, doesn’t have high expectations but does police what expectations it does have rigorously. Rather than fines, it polices Hungarian Television with the threat of forced interruptions of service. Recently, M1’s (MTV1) broadcasts were interrupted for one minute from 7:14pm – 7:15pm and a caption broadcast in silence explaining the relevant portion of the broadcasting law that they didn’t adhere to.

The now-defunct cable channel TV3 fell foul for several hours at a time for showing programmes deemed unsuitable too early in the evening – once they were off air all day.

Fully-blown regional television didn’t really take off in Hungary, though for a good reason – Hungary’s regions are by-and-large no longer in Hungary itself.

Hungary lost two thirds of her territory in 1920 at the finalisation of the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s said “Hungary is the only country in the world surrounded by itself”.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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