Unfair attitude toward PBK

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

The fact Tallinn citizens’ money is used to buy air time on the Perviy Baltiysky Kanal (PBK) has been widely discussed in recent weeks. The network’s representative in Estonia, Margus Merima, finds criticism unjust.

There is a lot of talk of ETV+ next to PBK right now. Why is it that PBK is on top, while ETV+ that was launched with great euphoria just two years ago has hit bottom?

There are several reasons. Mistakes have been made with ETV+, and they are being made now. The market has also changed in the past ten years. It is not as easy to launch channels from scratch than it was ten or 15 years ago.

Even with state funding?

While their budget might seem generous, real results would require a lot more. It is not that simple.

Your director Anton Blinov said Estonia would do better giving that money to PBK. Let us presume that happens. What would it buy?

ETV2 was created after the events of the Bronze Night but turned out to be something else entirely…

A channel for reruns.

Yes, whatever. However, the matter was on the agenda then, and we met with officials and politicians and proposed cooperation. We did the same thing after events in Ukraine that led to the creation of ETV+. It was not a simple case of give that money to PBK. We are a media organization capable of creating new channels or finding other solutions. We were very open to that idea.

Was there interest on the state’s part?

No. They listened to what we had to say before a committee of some sort decided. Nothing came of it. We have proposed solutions. We are business entity with our own set of goals…

To turn a profit?

Yes, while this was not about propaganda. After all, we were talking about counter-propaganda. It was not a problem for us, but there was no interest.

What is behind PBK’s success? Is it what you buy from the Perviy Kanal, or is it your original programming? Director of the Perviy Kanal Konstantin Ernst is legendary for his ability to guess the tastes of the average Russian viewer.

This and that. Our Estonian news is among the most watched programs. It needs to be kept in mind that a network needs to fill more than one or two hours. You have a host of hours you need to fill with quality programming people would like. This is part of the answer to your question about ETV+: you cannot make a channel with one or two programs. That is why it is our business model to take content from a donor network, add something to it, and adapt it to the local market.

The Perviy Kanal is a donor for you?

Technically, yes. We have a contract with Perviy Kanal Vsemirnaya Set that holds the distribution rights to the network’s programming abroad. Basically, we buy in bulk and then see how we can organize it. Comments according to which Russian networks are feeding us something are nonsense. They are charging us, and handsomely I might add.

Commentators often get PBK and the Perviy Kanal mixed up. Do your viewers have trouble telling them apart?

Our viewers have no problems. Mistakes are made by politicians and commentators. And I do not think it is because they don’t know. Looking at the controversy of the past two weeks, at Raul Rebane’s article that started it all, I don’t think he is dumb, I think he is perfectly aware. He looked at a Ukrainian study; however, there is no PBK in Ukraine, there is the Perviy Kanal…

The study was carried out in cooperation with Estonian partners, which is why it also looked at PBK. That is the explanation given by the people behind it. I called them. It will be presented in Estonia in early February.

I do not know how they could have monitored it…

Three major networks were monitored over three years, including PBK.

These things are persistently confused in Estonia. A Russian network and a network of the Russian Federation…

How do you define yourselves? Are you a Latvian network, or a British one? Or a Baltic one?

PBK is a Baltic network. We are operating based on a license issued in Latvia and broadcasting three signals: Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian. We have different programming, different advertising.

But the company is registered in the United Kingdom?

In Latvia. We also have a company registered in the UK, and some of our channels have an Ofcom license. There are objective reasons for that, but it is not so we could circumvent something. Ofcom is very thorough in monitoring activity.

Criticism of PBK we have seen in recent weeks is based firstly on the fact that the way Estonia is portrayed in the Perviy Kanal’s news and political programs is negative 80 percent of the time, and secondly because your original programming seems to favor the Center Party. Your comment?

We have been producing Estonian news for more than a decade. When we started, we decided not to produce foreign news and instead include “Vremya” in our programming as it already covers the world.

“Vremya” is constantly raging against what it refers to as the rotting West. At least as far as I’ve seen.

I would not comment on that. Our decision was based on the fact we cannot produce foreign news. We have taken a lot of flak because of it, but that was our decision.

As concerns the Center Party, I believe the polemic of these past weeks started when Tallinn passed its next year budget that includes a sum for programming. They have ordered programming from

PBK in the past. It is not up to us to regulate party content versus municipal content when someone buys programming from us. If a city is ruled by a single party, it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. Especially if city officials are members of said party.

It seems to us that PBK is taking too much undeserved flak.

You cannot be held accountable; your goal is to turn a profit. You’re capitalists.

Basically. We are glad when someone wants to buy programming and air time. It is not easy for networks to reach budget targets. That’s just the way it is. Content clients buy must be in accordance with the law, but if it is, we have no objections.

Programs ordered by the city are what they are because the client is king?

Basically. If you want to order a program, we will look for open air time and discuss price. If we find it would intrigue our viewers, we are on board. We are looking at two sides: profit and viewer preferences.

Could I buy air time on “Nasha Stolitsa” and be portrayed in a favorable light. Cutting ribbons and helping elderly people cross the road. Would that be possible?

I think so. If you run for the Center Party…

I would rather take my own election coalition. Taavi Minnik’s Justice, or something like that.

Then you would have to talk to the city government about whether you would be right for the program. It is not up to us.

Perhaps we could come to a different agreement in terms of where to show my face?

Potentially. Somewhere else, yes.

So long as I come off heroic and beautiful in the eyes of voters.

It would be sensible to speak Russian…

I can do that.

And you would need a reason, like upcoming elections for instance.

Yes, that is what I have in mind.

Talking about advertising, we also had the social democrats and IRL during the campaign period. The Reform Party too, I think. Major parties have paid for advertising during elections.

But you take no responsibility for the city’s propaganda programs?

We have to make sure they do not include a criminal component. It is the same for you in newspapers. You have to make sure articles do not result in litigation, but otherwise it’s people’s opinion.

You broadcast Perviy Kanal’s news program “Vremya”. Were Estonia to find itself in a similar situation to where Ukraine was three years ago – mass disinformation on Russian networks, calls to action etc. – would PBK stop broadcasting the program?

There has been no such situation, nor have we reason to expect there will be.

They didn’t anticipate it in Ukraine either?

We have the right not to broadcast some things. And we are loyal to the Republic of Estonia; we have a registered company here and…

The producers of “Vremya” are not loyal to the Republic of Estonia.

We would decide based on effect on income and well-being and what we believe is right. I cannot give you an exact answer now…

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