Tallinn Television looking for suitor

PHOTO: Priit Simson

Tallinn’s centrist city authority is no longer making a secret of the fact it has started looking for a suitor for its politically biased municipal television network Tallinn Television (TTV) to bring in private sector perspective, boost ratings, and manage tensions.

The Tallinn Television foundation, created with a Tallinn city council decision, started producing original programming in 2011, whereas most political parties in Estonia have vowed to shut down the network upon coming to power in the capital. This means that whoever will become TTV’s new part owner will have an unstable partner on their hands.

It is also probable that a major overhaul of the network’s staff and program is in order which can be neither cheap nor easy.

At the same time, Tallinn Television has great coverage and therefore great potential for better ratings and own income.

Perhaps it is because of these circumstances the city has not chosen the path of open negotiations to find partners but is fishing for semi-secret contacts instead.

Member of the board Taavi Pukk says that while selling a holding in the network to a private investor is certain, he is talking about contacts with potential buyers instead of negotiations. The network has already started seeking a more balanced program with the future sale in mind and own income has grown by leaps and bounds.

Tallinn city authorities have been in contact with at least three Estonian media groups as concerns the sale. Do you plan to sell the entire venture or just a part of it?

I’ve received signals from both the Tallinn city government and the network’s supervisory board that negotiations would concern a partial sale. The city does not currently want to hand all of it [the network – A- P.] over. Because the supervisory board is chaired by the mayor, the network is very important for the city.

However, because it is up to the city council to make the decision, the size of the holding to be sold might become the target of political arguments. I foresee a long and complicated process.

Has the board of the network been included in talks on some level?

We have not sat down together, but we remain in contact with the city government. No one is trying to go behind anyone’s back. The board is subject to the supervisory board and the city council that has created the foundation – we will proceed based on instructions from those two bodies.

Once negotiations begin, the board will take part as we have the information on what happens and when around here.

When will Tallinn Television be sold?

We want to wait for our half-year summary to see to what extent we’ve managed to fix up our structure and earn own income after what has been very intensive work. I believe that if we can close 2018 we will have a good picture of how the new management style has affected results.

You believe there will be no changes in terms of owners this year?

I believe that, yes. It will be very difficult to decide on a form of management in case of a partial sale. We are also in the process of creating for TTV a social advisory body to have more broad-based management.

I will ask directly: has a deal been made as concerns sale of a holding?

I have no information to suggest a deal has been made, that we would be heading for negotiations. We’ve been in contact with several parties, and it has been said details would be discussed when things get as far as negotiations. That is pretty much how far we’ve gotten.

How is Tallinn Television doing? Are you turning a profit or making a loss?

Last year’s financials are about to be sent to the city government, and KPMG auditors have found our books to be in order. We closed the last financial year in the black which is mostly due to the fact we managed to boost own income…

… and how much of it was support from the city of Tallinn?

Support from the city government also grew. However, coming back to own income, if we only managed to make €70,000 or €80,000 in previous years, we made close to €200,000 last year.

What is the weight of own income in TTV’s total income?

Tallinn Television has a budget of €3.8 million and our own income is €200,000. It is a small percentage, but it has grown considerably.

That said, it has been the supervisory board’s wish to keep TTV from becoming a traditional commercial network, trying to fill every second with advertising. We have never interrupted one of our programs for commercial messages.

There are ways to boost own income. For example, equipment we’ve procured using city investments and our broadcast bus spend a lot of hours idle – instead of working, selling the service.

Let us come to the main question. Why is the city government looking to sell off a holding in TTV in the first place? To cut costs, find new production quality?

Tallinn Television has been under heavy criticism and sported a negative image from the first. I believe that bringing in a private investor would vent a lot of that hot air. Outright criticism would become very uncomfortable.

The private sector that is used to fighting for every single cent of advertising revenue with their ratings can also bring experience we currently lack. A private sector owner would help us boost our viewer figures, work more effectively. At the same time, the question remains of how to retain balance and our goal of producing more levelheaded television.

How many people currently work at Tallinn TV? What emotions might news of an incoming owner spark in them? Uncertainty perhaps?

We have around 40 full-time salaried workers. People who offer us services – individual programs or cameraman services – also number about the same.

The chairman of the supervisory board and the management have told employees that we are currently weighing our options, and that they have nothing to worry about.

I’m sorry Tallinn Television is a target for political attacks. The people who work here want to do their jobs in the best possible way. I assure you there is currently no political control of decisions. Our people are free in their choices and want to produce good television…

… let’s be honest, that is not how it has looked…

Yes, but I cannot talk about the past. I can talk about the way things are today. That said, if a program is hosted by an active politician, it is clear what the mood will be. I’m talking about employees in charge of daily news – it saddens me that they take a hit. Toomas Lepp’s unexpected and unpleasant exit could not have had a positive effect on the organization either.

There is no sense in trying to be a smaller version of “Aktuaalne kaamera” or Postimees. We do not have the resources with which to compete. Rather we have tried to look for topics that might interest viewers but are not covered by AK or Postimees.

People are not afraid they will be asked to leave and have to start looking for new jobs when the private investor comes in?

People are calm. Tallinn Television has been a hot topic at elections every four years, they’ve seen it all many times before.

Will TTV continue as a free-to-air nationwide network?

We are planning no changes and will be the only network besides ETV to stay free-to-air. It is expensive, but it is also important.

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