After The Screen Went Black: How Poland’s National Broadcaster Hit Roadblocks In Its Recovery From One Of The Most Dramatic Days In The Nation’s TV History

EXCLUSIVE: It was a moment of high drama befitting a premium TV series and yet was playing out in real time in front of the people of Poland.

Just days before Christmas, when the nation should have been winding down for the holidays, the TVP national broadcaster’s news operation was abruptly taken off air and bosses unceremoniously fired as Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition took power from the ruling Law & Justice (PiS) party after eight years in opposition.

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Protests were sparked by outgoing Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, police were summoned and some Polish news channels, briefly, went black. The departing Kaczyński branded the new Tusk government’s move “illegal” but the new leader pushed on, dismissing senior management and boards, and pledging to create new news outlets that would be balanced.

This was no simple changing of the guard, however. More than two months on, Deadline has revisited the Polish media landscape to find one in a total state of flux, with the public broadcaster struggling for money and ideas, and light at the end of the tunnel not yet visible. A chasm has opened up in the heart of Polish news and broadcasting, one that competitors are happy to occupy in TVP’s place.

“This is the consequence of treating Polish public TV as a wh*re,” says Michal Rogalski, director of one of the most premium shows to have emerged from the Central European nation in recent years, TVP’s Bay of Spies. “Whoever pays, takes the institution,” he adds. TVP didn’t respond to several Deadline requests for comment.

What happened on that fateful day on December 20 is broadly seen as the result of eight years of TVP’s news operation acting as a nakedly propagandist mouthpiece for the right-wing PiS.

TVP is state-controlled but unlike the likes of the BBC or France Télévisions it lacks a structure of independence and tends to sway towards the government of the day. Under PiS, this was taken to extremes.

“TVP was never politically neutral but over the last eight years it became outrageous,” adds Rogalski. “Barriers were broken. It was a disgrace. The situation now is just a consequence of the pendulum moving so far to the right.”

“Kicking down the front door”

Police officers block the entrance to TVP headquarters during a sit-in protest
Police officers block the entrance to TVP headquarters during a sit-in protest

That consequence, however, speaks to PiS’s failure to spot longer-term opportunities to reshape national broadcasting while in power, according to Aleks Szczerbiak, a Poland expert and politics professor at the University of Sussex.

“They didn’t have a plan B,” he says. “They hung everything on control of state TV and as soon as they lost office, the new government did what in Poland is called ‘na rympał’ — a ‘blitzkrieg’ or, put simply, ‘kicking down the front door.'”

Sadly for Tusk’s coalition, this particular act of na rympał has not led to the desired objective of swiftly assuming control of TVP just with different leadership and maybe a dash more political neutrality.

The government was forced to liquidate TVP, as dissolving then rebuilding it completely would have to be agreed by the National Broadcasting Council (referred to as KRRiT) and President, both of whom remain miles away from Tusk’s Civic Coalition politically, meaning a stalemate has occurred. That deadlock remains in place today, and the legal registration of the liquidators is currently grinding its way through the Polish courts in what is a messy and complex process.

TVP can still operate, but is struggling for funding and is, to an extent, being rebuilt from scratch.

Lawmaker Tadeusz Kowalski is the sole member of the five-strong KRRiT council who is sensitive to the Civic Coalition’s aims, and he sets out why liquidating was the best move.

“My vote is the only one against the four others. I am a simple, lone voice,” he tells Deadline. “Putting the companies into liquidation is not so controversial. It provides an opportunity to restructure the companies, optimize expenditures and costs, and properly manage public funds, which will make it possible to build strong, independent and civic-minded public media in the future.”

But while TVP looks to that future amidst a tempestuous political landscape, it still needs to somehow hit a high-quality stamp today. However, it appears to be losing eyeballs. According to data supplied by KRRiT, Warner Bros. Discovery-owned rival TVN 24’s share of viewers rose by more than 50% in the first two weeks of February compared to the same period in 2023, while TVP 1, TVP 2 and TVP Info fell 18%, 15% and a whopping 67% respectively.

A KRRiT meeting just prior to the December shutdown projected a funding shortfall this year of around 430 million Polish zloty, ($100 million), coming as news and TV production costs soar. Furthermore, TVP is currently funded via a hybrid license fee-advertising-subscription model and, in common with public broadcasters across Europe, more and more refuseniks are springing up in the hyper-competitive landscape.

The decline of TVP’s news coverage isn’t only down to politics and viewing habits, believes Sussex University’s Szczerbiak.

“What strikes you when you watch now is its amateurishness,” he says of the TVP Info news channel. “It’s technically not very well put together. Supporters of new management say this is because everything was done in a hurry, but you don’t have to be a specialist in broadcasting to say that it is technically on a much lower level than before.”

Politically, Szczerbiak says TVP Info is “clearly sympathetic” to Tusk’s administration but in a subtler, “less pejorative” manner than under previous management. A recent report from fact-checking firm Demagog concluded that TVP was omitting information disfavoring the new government and marginalizing the opposition.

TVP’s newly-installed heads of department are comprised of some of the same faces that were running things a decade ago, we understand, a move that Deadline is told has frustrated TVP insiders who feel that an injection of new blood was the best way to arrest declines.

“The argument that some critics use is that the people who work for TVP now are the people who couldn’t make it in the more successful news channels,” says a Polish media commentator, who requested anonymity.

Elsewhere, some insiders are said to lack faith in the Civic Coalition, pointing to its poor track record in arts funding and opposition to the creation of the Polish Film Institute.

Perhaps of more concern, TV Republika — a right-wing news rival with a similar political leaning to the PiS party — saw its share skyrocket by 3,260% over the same period, although admittedly this came from a tiny base.

“What is the attraction of watching TVP Info any more?” queries Szczerbiak. “If you want a more professional pro-government channel you have TVN, if you want an unbiased news program you go to [another rival] Polsat or if you liked the old TVP you go to TV Republika.”

Going beyond news

Television is so much more than news and it’s not only TVP’s journalistic output that is struggling.

Before the shutdown, Rogalski notes that news and current affairs was not the only genre “compromised” by PiS’ propagandist approach, with some movies taken off air and uncontroversial dramas greenlit that were full of “patriotic notions.”

Rogalski directed one of TVP’s few premium TV series of late, but he says things have dramatically worsened and there is little appetite for risk-taking in the current climate. “TV is starving,” he adds. “People are being left without payment and it feels like there is no chance of commissioning bigger projects this year.”

Many of those working on popular soap operas are understood to be fearing for their future from next month onwards, once contracts run down.

“They are convinced that sooner or later the government will have to find some source of financing because blocking all production, including soap operas and news, would be a too much of a shock to the broad audience,” says a source further summarizing the view of TVP insiders, who adds that the film development department has pushed on with scripts in the hope that funding will reappear soon.

European Film Academy Deputy Chair Joanna Szymanska (Netflix’s Operation Hyacinth), who runs movie and TV drama indie Shipsboy, says she “has projects but getting them off the ground is becoming more and more difficult if you don’t want to give in to the lowest common denominator.”

At a time when the industry feels more global than ever, Szymanska says Polish broadcasters have retrenched rather than looking beyond their borders for funding, a move compounded by the previous government’s isolationist approach. She flags, for example, that TVP is not a member of the newly-formed New8 grouping of pubcasters that comprises networks from Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Belgium.

“We have an international TV series co-pro on the slate and the irony is that we have Swedish and German interest, but in Poland we are told, ‘This is too ambitious for us’,” she says. “The European market is more fearless than our market.”

Rogalski concurs and says buyers in Poland have for a long while had a “simple mindset.”

Netflix, HBO and Canal+ are still active locally but not in any great volume and the former’s originals boss Anna Nagler quietly exited several months back. Meanwhile, the streamer has been caught up in the Polish Filmmakers Association’s dramatic demand to prosecutors to investigate the former Polish government’s failure to implement an EU copyright directive introducing royalties from internet streaming services, which remains ongoing. The association cites the withdrawal of this legislation by the Polish government coming just days after then-Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki met with Netflix boss Reed Hastings, although Netflix strenuously denies any connection between the two happenings.

Moving forwards, hopes are mixed on whether TVP can in the short term find more funding and in the longer term be reformed to avoid any future repetition of what happened on that cold late-December day last year.

Speaking on both points, KRRiT member Kowalski sets out a desire to replace the failing license fee with an “audiovisual” tax of around $25 per year, while he says “a new law on public media should regulate their organization, their management and the systemic way of financing them.”

Szczerbiak says the government lacks “incentive” to commit to “depoliticizing” TVP via long-term reform, but a source from a rival network to TVP disagrees and believes there is a “dedication and confidence to change the entire system of controlled media outlets,” which has cross-party support. This will come to a head in the upcoming local and European elections, the source believes, with public broadcasting set to play a key role in campaigns — both in terms of coverage and as a matter of policy.

If the latter were to be realized, Tusk’s coalition will need to swing behind the ailing media sector of a nation that has blessed the world with the likes of Pawel Pawlikowski, Andrzej Wajda and Agnieszka Holland, to name but a few.

“Maybe I sound idealistic but I believe in storytelling and I see this as an industry that can generate lots of income,” concludes the European Film Academy’s Szymanska. “There is no reason why we can’t create a balanced, sustainable industry. I am always for the middle way.”

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