Jan Souček: Steering Czech TV into the digital age

Jan Souček
Jan Souček in 2014. Photo: Czech TV (image enhanced and retouched with AI)

Jan Souček, the current director of the Czech TV regional studio in Brno, is one of the five finalists from whom the Czech Television Council will select the general director in June. Garnering the support of 14 out of the 15 members of the supervisory body, he received two more votes than the current director general, Petr Dvořák.

You're the sole internal contender against Petr Dvořák. What prompted your decision to compete against the current chief?

When you conceive a better way of doing things, you must also possess the power to execute it. I've sensed stagnation in the Czech TV in recent years. Petr Dvořák hinted he wouldn't want to continue for a third term, which, after twelve years, seemed logical to me. The developments around us also played a part. Television stands at multiple crossroads. The more problems there are to solve, the more it spurs my activity. These factors collectively motivated my application for the selection process.

The new director will helm the television till 2029, a period brimming with changes. What do you aim to contribute to television over these six years?

Thoughts on the shape of terrestrial broadcasting post-2030 aren't the sole reason for emphasizing public television's presence on digital platforms. This is where people starting their active lives predominantly consume TV content and seek information about their surroundings. I believe that the redesign of iVysílání (OTT service of Czech TV) and strategy shift arrived at Czech TV, albeit later than our competitors. It's not just about iVysílání. It pertains more to news production and its deployment in the internet sphere, particularly on mobile platforms. This is a key objective for the next six years, which I intend to concentrate on.

Should Czech TV, for instance, curtail the extent of terrestrial broadcasting and leverage online distribution more?

One aspect is my vision, another is that Czech TV doesn't entirely control its destiny in this regard. Numerous uncertainties factor into my vision for television six years from now. The methods of disseminating public television broadcasting are legally defined. I believe this should be part of the discussion on the major amendment to the Czech Television Act. It should address this for at least the next six years, ideally more, given television's forward-looking nature. As long as terrestrial broadcasting functions, Czech Television likely won't significantly reduce the number of channels, unless financial circumstances compel it. I'd be pleased if the law could provide us with greater opportunities to operate in the digital environment and to invest concessionary funds in this direction, as I see this as the media's future strategic role.

Won't commercial broadcasters argue that public media shouldn't operate in this way on the Internet? Such criticism has already been raised about the news websites of Czech Television and Czech Radio.

I understand their criticisms, as their sole objective is to generate profit. However, if the Czech state deems the role of public media necessary, and particularly if news dissemination occurs primarily online, we must also shift public service media there. We can't claim that the world is transitioning online and leave public service media out of the loop. If we want a watchdog, it must be on the inside, not the outside. Hence, I'm convinced that public service media belong there. I draw from the practices of other European media houses, which either received a mandate or, on their own initiative, moved a significant portion of their news and journalistic activities to digital platforms.

From which European media houses would you draw inspiration?

We can find inspiration in Scandinavian institutions like NRK, SVT, or YLE. They operate in similar-sized markets and often emerge as successful trend-setting visionaries. I see no need to reinvent the wheel for Czech public media's path. I prefer drawing from the established, tested, and proven strategies of our European counterparts.

You've mentioned that television can't chart such a path independently. There seems to be a lack of political consensus on the future and funding of public service. What's your plan if you assume office and find politicians unwilling to address this?

The new director general steps in this October. If we can't achieve a change in public service media financing by 2024, we'll undoubtedly need to make cuts in 2025. This means limiting Czech TV's production and activities. It would be irresponsible to deny this possibility. However, I'm not one to abandon ship at the first sign of trouble. I can envision areas where we could make strategic cuts to keep Czech TV operational.

Could you elaborate on the strategic cuts you're considering?

For instance, we could reconsider the scope of purchasing licenses to broadcast major sporting events or the capacities that television retains in-house. In my project, I propose a fresh perspective on the drama that Czech TV offers its viewers. I'd like to present top foreign productions at least once a week during prime time, where buying licenses proves much cheaper than producing our own content. This doesn't mean we should abandon our own dramatic work. However, I observe a predominance of the crime genre. It seems we believe that nothing but crime investigation makes a good TV series subject.

Crime series share a similar tradition here and in Germany. If we remove them, won't we deprive Czechs of a reason to watch TV?

I don't believe so. Consider the success of other series we've aired, like family drama Cuckoos. Currently, we're riding a wave of interest in crime series, but television itself sets the trends. To excuse ourselves by saying that this is what people want and hence we only need to produce crime genre, in my view, is a circular argument.

TV industry faces pressure from foreign streaming platforms, which use their budgets to buy the work of Czech filmmakers. Will Czech TV afford the work of external productions?

I don't think the competition will be that fierce. Today, Czech TV faces criticism from our commercial sphere partners, who also produce drama, accusing us of inflating market prices. HBO, once intensively active here, has withdrawn. We'll see how much other platforms are willing to spend in our region. If they find the prices on the Czech market unattractive, they won't raise the bar extremely high. I don't foresee a situation so radical that we can no longer produce drama that could compete with what foreign platforms offer.

What are your thoughts on the long-term sustainable financing of Czech Television and the budget it should have?

In my view, the discussion about funding started from the wrong end. We should first have a factual debate about the scope and form of public service for the next decade. What should its main attributes be and how much funding does it require? It would indeed be beneficial to reform the funding model, as television has been operating on the same nominal budget for 15 years. This answers those who argue that television must demonstrate its ability to save. We've been demonstrating it for 15 years. If we hadn't been seeking optimal production methods and savings for 15 years, we wouldn't have been able to operate on the same budget. When considering the optimal reform for future media financing, I favor the German model.

So, you're referring to the 'power plug' model?

Yes. The payer is simply a household with electricity. If I were to add some amount to that, the optimal ratio of the television fee to the average wage in the given state is about 0.6 percent. Converted to today's average wage in the Czech Republic, this amounts to about CZK 230 (€9.70). However, given other circumstances and price developments in the Czech Republic, it's probably not appropriate to discuss such comfortable financing. I don't think it would be possible to find a political consensus on this. I consider a fee of around CZK 180 (€7.60) to be a reasonable amount for debate.

What's your response to some politicians suggesting that fees should be completely abolished, and television should be part of the state budget?

I have two arguments against financing through the state budget. Firstly, the state budget is a law that only lasts for 12 months, and then it starts from scratch. Television, however, requires much more advanced planning. The uncertainty of what will happen to funding in next year's state budget is detrimental for institutions like Czech TV. Secondly, Czech society still experiences quite strong fluctuations. I would worry about political fluctuations and thus again a significant influence on the financing of public service media. However, there is a way I could envision.

Could you elaborate on that?

If the state budget of the Czech Republic stabilizes, public service media could be financed through the Act on Budgetary Determination of Taxes. Funding would be tied to some percentage of VAT revenue or some excise taxes. A nice advantage would be that the financing would not need an inflation clause. I can imagine that, but I understand that the state budget is shaky and it would be very difficult to say that we will put another mandatory expenditure there. So, let's say that it is a forward-looking solution when it is possible to consolidate and stabilize state finances.

Would you consider terminating some channels, altering their programming priorities, or adjusting the audience profile?

My vision for Czech TV in the coming years doesn't involve radical channel cancellations. If we can reform the financing, it would be beneficial to return to ČT3 (the station for seniors, which broadcast in 2020-2022). We should have a channel dedicated to intergenerational communication, emphasizing active lifestyles and topics that appeal to the growing senior segment of Czech society. I'm part of the strong generation of the 70s. We can't ignore demographic development, which is why I think an attractively designed channel would suit Czech Television again.

However, children born in the 1970s under the rule of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia spent most of their lives in a democratic society with a wide range of content. What exactly could Czech TV offer them on a special channel?

People's expectations in their senior years differ slightly from those still actively engaged in their work duties. It's attractive for seniors to have a TV channel phase their day. They have their expectations about popular trivia contests and are going back to the retro stuff.

What would the other stations look like?

For me, ČT1 is a mainstream channel, where premieres of dramatic projects take place, or television premieres of major cinema projects. It also includes the main roundup newscast. ČT2, in my view, is a channel dominantly focused on popularizing science, documentaries, or more demanding cinematography. ČT art is a channel focused on high culture, art or, if you prefer, club cinema, minority music genres. The children's channel ČT:D is a very successful project and it would behove us to find more money for original Czech productions for children. We reduced it in this year's budget. I think that producing more original things for children will also be necessary because major global producers are focusing on digital platforms and thus their willingness to sell licenses for their premiere projects to Czech broadcasters will decrease.

What about the news channel?

The news channel is the flagship of any public television. In my project, I propose that current affairs programs should return to ČT24, which will follow up on topics covered in the daily news. In the daily flow of information, we often lack the space to provide the necessary context and track where things have gone. Public service media fulfils its function precisely by following cases and advocating for systemic changes that prevent the recurrence of problems. At the same time, I'd like to significantly shift the emphasis that colleagues from news department place on the digital platform, especially mobile phones. Surveys show that ČT24 maintains a very good position as a television channel even in a European comparison. We alternate between the first and second positions with other all-news TV channels in Europe. However, the internet form of news coverage currently doesn't reach the top rank. I believe we should work on this and aim for the top rank within three years. People's sources for current information are changing across all age groups, not just the young. The shift away from linear television broadcasting is noticeable, and mobile phones and tablets are on the rise.

What should Czech TV offer to young viewers to remain a relevant public service and to encourage their willingness to pay and support it?

The days when the younger generation sought content on classic linear television are gone. These habits won't change. We need to focus on reaching them through mobile platforms and the internet environment. Television has already taken some steps in this direction, with web-only shows leading in an interesting direction. Dramaturgy should place more emphasis on the themes that resonate with the young generation. We need to speak their language and bring drama, as well as current affairs, that engage with topics of interest to this target group. For example, the series 'Five Years' is a beautiful example where the dramaturgy differs not only in the subject matter but also in the footage and the way of processing. In my opinion, it's a project that could soon also appear in classical broadcasting, because I believe its topic affects a much wider group than just people who have just entered adult life.

Jan Souček (*1974)

He has served as the director of the Brno studio of Czech Television since 2014. Prior to that, he was a news editor at Czech Radio and chief dramaturg of Czech Television in Brno. He also managed PR agencies New Deal Communications and Transparent Communications. His career began in the 1990s at TV Nova and Radio Krokodýl. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Law at Masaryk University in Brno.

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