Television in the Age of (Post) Communism: The Case of Romania

Dana Mustata. Journal of Popular Film and Television. Volume 40, Issue 3. 2012.

Studies on television in Eastern Europe so far have been consistent in understanding television through notions of political control that have reiterated the East-West opposition of the Cold War. Whether political control has been acknowledged, denied, or complicated, television in this European geopolitical space has been limited to conceptual structures that have prioritized politics at the expense of the medium itself. This is not to deny that politics has played an important role in Eastern European television, nor that politics does form an important context for understanding television. However, limiting television to political understandings loses sight of the very object of study: the medium of television. Although scarce, scholarship on television in Eastern Europe has so far fit into a politically reductionist trend that has produced political stories of television, rather than television histories. Emerging scholarship in this area needs, therefore, to initiate such television histories by attempting to first understand the medium before discussing its relations to politics.

Previous scholarship on television in communist regimes persistently followed the politically reductionist trend, in which television has been invariably described from the premise of political submissiveness. Eli Noam in his book Television in Europe (1991) introduced broadcasting in the former Easter European regimes as “subordinated to the pursuit of state control over society” and “rigorously nonindependent” (274). Burton Paulu wrote in 1974 in the book Radio and Television Broadcasting in Eastern Europe that transmission and programming contents were subject to party control. Paul Flenley (1997) talked about a “centralised state-controlled system serving the ideological and political needs of the Soviet Communist Party” and wrote that “the fundamental role of television and radio in Soviet society still remained the same, i.e. to mobilize support for government and Party policy” (Flenley 111). Writing about the (former) Soviet Union, Ellen P. Mickiewicz discussed factual television programs in the former Soviet Union from the same political perspective (Changing Channels and Split Signals). This politically reductionist trend of scholarship on Eastern European television has taken political and historical factors as a priori determinants for conceptualizing television in these European spaces.

The discussion included in this chapter is not as ambitious as to set up a new framework for conceptualizing television in Eastern Europe. However, it is meant to underscore the fact that television should be looked at through looser political filters, at times even abandoning presumptions of relevant East-West differences. Looking at the case of Romania, I will argue that television has only been a national medium at a specific stage in its development and has been defined by political control for only a transitional period of its communist history. Starting from what John Ellis (2000) described within the British context as fundamental periods in television’s development (“the era of scarcity” and the “era of availability”), I will show that Romanian television has undergone the same steps of development, and it was the specifics of the availability era that enabled political control of the broadcast institution in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Local political and historical differences among television broadcasters in different European countries are all part of this specific stage of development, and it is at this stage that politics had a leading role in the local paths that the medium took. Once again, this is not meant to deny the impact of politics when it comes to the history of television in Eastern European countries. Rather, it is meant to contest the central role of politics in the study of television history in this area. Besides national politics, other factors—technological, professional, and institutional factors specific to the medium of European broadcast relations—also played crucial roles in the development of Romanian television.

The Medium without Borders

International broadcast relations were central to the incipient phase of Romanian television. This was so despite and to the detriment of the state’s socialist politics and marked a period in the history of Romanian television when it resembled television in other European countries. This period was characterized by Ellis’s era of scarcity: limited television channels, partial broadcasting time, discontinuous television schedules, and an emergent penetration of television into domestic private spaces and daily routines. In the “era of scarcity,” television had yet to claim its identity, form, and social role. The unsettled character of the medium also characterized the early phase of Romanian television. The following discussion illustrates how this early phase of scarcity allowed Romanian television to evade political control.

The pursuit of know-how became the main driving motor behind early Romanian television. This empowered television professionals who took charge of the medium and undermined political control. Relations with other media as well as relations with foreign broadcasters became the channels through which the expertise was acquired in the early Romanian television industry.

Romanian television’s age of scarcity lasted until roughly the late 1960s. From the first broadcasts in 1956 until the late 1960s, television in Romania lacked a clear aesthetic, professional, and institutional identity. Just like in other countries, this status of uncertainty allowed, first of all, for experimentation with other art and media forms. Early Romanian programs that were highly valued not just by viewers but also among international juries were in fact musical films presented as televised compilations of choreography and sound. Omul din umbra la soare (The Shadow Man in the Sun), directed by Valeriu Lazarov in 1964, won a special mention of the jury at the Monte Carlo International Television Festival (Pasca 5). Another musical film, Omul si Camera (The Man and the Camera), also directed by Valeriu Lazarov, won three international prizes: first prize at the Cairo International Festival of Television Films, the award for best directing and most original work at the Prague International Television Festival, and the award of international critics along with a special mention of the jury at the Monte Carlo International Television Festival (Pasca 6). The film showed a choreographed synchronization of the sound with the camerawork, while the camera focused in a reflexive way on presenting to the viewer the new television environment: the studio, the lighting, the mise-en-scène. TV directors such as Lazarov were the first acknowledged professionals of Romanian television. The role of directors as the first professionals of television was justified by the early medium’s lack of an aesthetic identity. Instead, television drew on other art forms in its incipient stage not just in Romania but in most countries.

Like anywhere else in the world, Romanian television was also indebted to radio in its early stage. Early television content consisted of genres taken over from the radio: current affairs programs, theater plays, children’s programs, music recitals, interviews, and the weather bulletin. The migration of radio programs to television took place through the late 1960s. Mai aveti o intrebare? (Do You Still Have a Question?) was a science program that first became popular on the radio before it gained popularity on television. “There was a time when everything that was the best on the radio—both people and programs—were taken, no questions asked, and transplanted into television,” said Dionisie Sincan, the creator of Mai aveti o intrebare (Sincan 215). The pioneers of Romanian television were, in fact, radio professionals.

“In 1960, just like the rest of my colleagues, I was brought from the radio—where I was a presenter—to the “news” department of television. Those were the crazy years of pioneering, when television was submissive to radio from all points of view. Everything was live, the 16 mm film was still a dream and the only illustrative materials used were photographs … Back then, television news was searching for its ideal form, being still indebted to radio. Cross-cuts were also used in television, alternating from one news presenter to another,” declared the renowned TV reporter Florin Bratescu for Cinema magazine in August 1972. (Munteanu 40)

While early television was searching for its identity, its institutionalization also remained up to negotiation. This is something that Monika Elsner, Thomas Muller, and Peter M. Spangenberg also described in the case of early German television, arguing that the lack of a medium-specific identity created a space of negotiation among various social and political actors. In Romania, the uncertain status of the new medium followed a loose political regulation and enabled the rise of television professionals able to negotiate and undermine political power. From the beginning, Romanian television was envisioned by the Communist Party as an institution in the service of the government’s ideology. Since its founding in 1956, it was placed under the supervision of the Radio and Television Committee, which reported to the Council of Ministers. This political body was meant to ensure the ideological and political role of the broadcast institution in society. However, what television was and what it could be was still to be discovered at that time.

In that uncertain period of television, interpersonal relations played a central role in the organization and managing of the broadcasting institution. In 1962, the general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party, Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, appointed Silviu Brucan to be vice president of television, with whom he had a relation of trust and friendship. As Silviu Brucan remembers,

There was a personal relation between us that was unusual for someone who was ruling the country and the party with a strong hand and who was used to everybody responding to his decisions as if to a military command. We started working together as early as August 23, 1944 (that is, the day Romania entered the sphere of Soviet influence), when his rule within the party was still uncertain. The fact that he had asked me to help him write his speeches on the basis of his honest appreciation of me created this “special bond” between us … In 1962, when I returned to Romania after almost seven years as Romanian ambassador to the United States, Gheorghiu-Dej called me in and offered me the position of State Minister, the second-in-command at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I refused vehemently, arguing that I was not a good diplomat and I did not like an executive position, which didn’t allow me to make a personal contribution … After a month, he called me in again and told me that in Romania we had to create a television that ought to educate the people, but also entertain them. After my years spent in America, I was the best person to spearhead this. He told me that what we called television did not please him and every time he watched programs in the evening, he did not find them interesting. (41)

As vice president of television, Brucan became inspired by British television in forming a vision of what Romanian television could be. His management challenged the political supervision of the party over the new broadcast institution. In his own words,

I liked the idea of organizing the institution of television. I thought of some policies that needed to be instituted. I warned [Gheorghiu-Dej], however, that I would only accept his offer if I were given the freedom to do what I thought was best and if other high officials wouldn’t interfere. He agreed and at the first meeting where we analyzed the activity of Radiotelevision I reported that I had received five phone calls from members of the political party, who were also present there at the meeting. Two of them thought the programs were informative and entertaining, while three protested that I was showing naked women on television or that I allowed … satire programs that mocked the Party, or that the series the “Saint” perverted the youth and incited them to crimes. I asked then: “Who should I listen to, comrade Gheorghiu?” He replied immediately: “To yourself. It’s your responsibility.” And then he warned everybody to let me be as “Tache [that is, Silviu Brucan] knows what he’s doing.” (41-42)

Brucan launched television entertainment programming such as political satires and imported British series. He developed close relations with the BBC, which became a source for the transfer of know-how to the television center in Bucharest. “Ever since I was appointed to run our Radio and Television system, the visit to the BBC became an important objective of mine,” wrote Brucan to the managing director of BBC Radio, Frank Gillard, in 1964.

To M. B. Latey, head of BBC Eastern European Service, Brucan confessed, “Knowing the way TV programs are made in England is a must these days. For the time being, I ordered some British equipment at Marconi.…” In December 1964, Brucan went on a three-week visit to the BBC to learn about aspects of organization at a television production center, from architectural design to administrative issues. At the BBC, Brucan was very much appreciated for his genuine interest in learning television.

He is their equivalent of our Director General … He is a most engaging and amusing person and his English is fluent. I found him an excellent company and very ready to talk freely, even dangerously … He professes a life-long admiration for the BBC and wants to spend his time with producers and in studios, seeing how programmes are prepared and directed, not in a round of official lunches, dinners and receptions. What a relief to have a visiting potentate with that kind of purpose in mind!

A letter signed by A. S. W. Skempton, senior assistant at BBC’s Television Liaison, spoke of the relations that Brucan envisioned between BBC and Romanian Radio and Television, which were not to abide by the party control:

Mr. Brucan, as you know, is in sole charge of television in Romania, although he only carries the title of Vice President and he made it quite clear during his visit that he would be only too glad to help the BBC, quoting specifically that we could send our cameramen freely throughout Romania and they could return with undeveloped film. There would be no restrictions of any sort and no censorship.

On 9 December 1964, the first agreement between the BBC and the Romanian Committee for Radio and Television was signed (“Relations”). The agreement facilitated mutual assistance, consisting of special television facilities to be granted to visiting production teams. Both parties were to make available television programs at reasonable prices on request. Moreover, Romanian Radio and Television could send to Britain an agreed number of television employees to visit the BBC to become familiar with its production methods.

Brucan resigned from his position at Romanian television on Ceausescu’s ascension to power in 1965. However, Romania’s relations with the BBC continued after his resignation. In 1966, the new management team of Romanian television visited the BBC with the purpose of studying its general system of organization, its editorial offices, and production work, being particularly interested in the making of science programs, school TV, variety shows, current affairs, live broadcasts, but also in methods of doing public research. In 1968, the new vice president of Romanian television, Bujor Ionita, visited the BBC’s engineering division to discuss the introduction of color TV in Romania. The BBC noted at the time, “This visit provides a golden opportunity to build up a PAL system in Eastern Europe” (Pauley). In March of the same year, another Romanian team made up of Catinca Ralea Petrut (TV producer and editor) and Virgil Cojocaru (TV cameraman) visited the BBC with the aim of exchanging experience, this time on matters related to audience research. The visit was also aimed at acquiring materials and organizational experience for the second channel of Romanian television, which was being planned at the time: “The Rumanians plan to open a second television channel largely devoted to cultural and educational programs and they are also on the lookout for serial stories and feature films,” recorded the BBC (Birch).

Relations with the BBC driven by the pursuit of know-how were central to the development of early Romanian television. They were the accomplishment of the first professionals of Romanian television and undermined political visions about the medium. These circumstances were enabled by the status of scarcity of early Romanian television. They promoted a medium in which foreign transfers and exchanges, as well as relations with other media, played the determining role.

The National Medium

From the 1970s onward, Romanian television embarked on a phase of consolidation. The new medium had earned its place within domestic households, the number of audiences increased, and several programs became highly popular, while television schedules became diverse and integrated within the patterns of everyday life. Starting out with 571 broadcast hours in 1957, Romanian television increased its broadcast offer to 1,369 hours in 1961, 3,161 hours in 1971, up to 4,642 hours in 1975, reaching the peak of 5,377 hours in 1980 (Evolutia 93). The number of TV subscriptions also increased dramatically in this period: from 28,000 subscriptions in 1957 to 2,692,000 in 1975 and to 3,713,000 by 1985 (Evolutia 93). From the 1970s Romanian television offered a wide variety of genres. Children’s and youth programs were the most numerous on the schedule. Other genres were factual and current affairs, cultural programs, sports, social investigation programs, science programs, how-to instructional programs, interactive programs that engaged viewers directly, and a wide range of other entertaining forms: from varieties to weekend magazines to films and drama series. There were also programs targeted at specific audiences, such as those for ethnic minorities, broadcast in German and Hungarian, respectively. Occasionally, international programs such as Varieties Programme by Polish TelevisionSeara televiziunii finlandeze (The Evening of Finnish Television), and Canzonissima (selections of the newest varieties by Radiotelevisione Italiana) were broadcast as part of mutual agreements with other countries. In 1968, the second public channel starting broadcasting and local TV stations were set up. The children’s series Aventurile lui Val Vartej (The Adventures of the Val Vartej Crew), the daily social investigation program Reflector, and the weekly programs Telecinemateca and Teleenciclopedia became popular among audiences. All these marked the transition of Romanian television toward what Ellis defined as an “era of availability.” This stage in television’s development was characterized by the diversity of content, the differentiation of audience categories, by broadcast output guided by demand-led strategies, by the increasing power of scheduling and the consolidation of television as a social institution. According to Ellis, diversification and differentiation were the central markers of the availability era. Programming and scheduling strategies ensured the diversification of content and the differentiation between audience categories, between time slots and rhythms of daily lives. Differentiation and diversification also occupied the central roles in the consolidation phase of Romanian television and introduced the Romanian broadcaster to an era of availability. I will argue that this logic of differentiation turned Romanian television into a ground for power struggles at this stage of its development. Scheduling became the platform where power struggles over television took place. “Scheduling is ‘powerful’ in the management of television and … it defines the nature of broadcast output in the era of availability” (Ellis 138). In Romania, television professionals and political leaders disputed the output of television throughout the 1970s by means of scheduling strategies. Upon the institutional and artistic consolidation of Romanian television by the end of the 1960s, it became clearer what television could do and how it could be used. This increased political claims over the broadcasting institution, which was to result in the introduction of strict dictatorial control by the 1980s.

Two strands of scheduling marked the transition of Romanian television from the era of scarcity to the era of availability: generic scheduling and frequent scheduling. Generic scheduling implied the prioritizing of specific genres on the television schedules, while program titles within the broader generic umbrella often changed. Children’s and youth programs took up the most programming time on Romanian television throughout the 1970s. Despite the fact that these had to comply with the party’s provisions on the educational role of television in society, within this generic prioritization, program makers accommodated different modes of address: from the directly instructional and educational to the entertaining or even hybrid formats such as children’s magazines. Scheduled daily, specific titles within this generic umbrella did not have a stable and recurrent timeslot. The diversity of modes of address also made it possible to integrate an entertaining dimension to these programs, alongside the political-educational direction envisioned by the party. Often programming alternated between the two different functions of this genre. Educational and instructional programs were followed by more entertaining broadcasts, such as children’s series, cartoons, or children’s magazines on the weekends. Instructional programs included Teleschool, but also programs with themes that presented greater interest to viewers such as hobbies or children’s competitions.

Frequent scheduling was another strategy that successfully accommodated the interests of the three power actors who negotiated over the output of television in Romania: political leaders, program makers, and audiences. This type of scheduling referred to the (few) programs on Romanian television that had a secure daily and weekly slot in an otherwise shifting schedule. Frequent scheduling is a historically contingent term as it refers specifically to the transition period of Romanian television from a phase of scarcity to the era of availability. A program such as Reflector was a constant presence on Romanian TV schedules of the 1970s. It was a social investigation program that became very popular between 1970 and 1977 and aimed at solving concrete cases of social injustice (usually reported by viewers themselves): from thefts and misdemeanors to political corruption. It was scheduled every weekday except for Wednesdays from 8:00 p.m. to 8:10 p.m. Reflector is a great example of a program that guaranteed its position in the schedule by attending to the party’s political vision, but also to the interest of the viewers and the ambitions of program makers. It became a showcase for the best journalistic work inside Romanian television, assembling an outstanding team of Romanian television professionals: Alexandru Stark, Florin Bratescu, Carmen Dumitrescu, Anca Arion, Stefan Dimitriu, and others. By the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, Reflector was a politically desirable program as Stefan Dimitriu, former Reflector program maker and reporter, remarked:

In 1967, there was the 9th Congress’s of re-launching of the Communist Party. Ceausescu wanted then to create his own personality cult and to this end he wanted to compromise everything related to his predecessor, Gheorghiu Dej. We took advantage of this situation. It was a period when Ceausescu found it convenient to criticize many existing conditions, including the party organization and the behavior of some ministers or party officials. And we inside the television center … took advantage of this situation, knowing we were backed up by Ceausescu himself. (Dimitriu)

Last but not least, the program was greatly popular, reaching an audience share of 63 percent (Campeanu). Dimitriu recalls,

The audiences saw themselves absolved from bureaucracy, incompetence or everything that was going wrong in society and that’s why they liked it.… Initially, we would get information about our cases from letters or phone calls we received from viewers. We would be approached on the bus by people, who pitched us ideas for cases to investigate. If a case was crazy enough for us to investigate, we would take it on.

Interestingly, the fate of Reflector at the end of the 1970s marked a shift in the power balance inside Romanian television and signaled the rise of political domination within the broadcast institution. In 1977, the program was suspended shortly and then resumed as a political investigation program. The propaganda secretary, Dumitru Popescu, also nicknamed “God” because of his political influence, was appointed to take charge of the political renovation of Reflector. According to Dimitriu,

Popescu “God” indoctrinated us on how to make these social investigation programs. As he was not happy with the way the new political enquête came out, … he brought in politicized people from press to make these programs. The programs had to be “Ceausist” and as politically biased as possible. They brought in people from Scanteia, from Romania Libera, and from other Party publications. … We had become a second-hand working force.

The program underwent great transformation to the extent that “only the name remained of the original Reflector (Dimitriu) while the rest became plain propaganda. In the 1980s, the memory of Reflector as a social investigation program was being erased and many archived records of the program were destroyed. “We are now left without some of the most important documents of that era, because indeed some of them were professional masterpieces, but also valuable documents about things that would happen in a society pretending to be perfect …,” confessed Dimitriu.

The death of Reflector at the end of the 1970s marked the beginning of an extraordinary period in Romanian television history: that of totalitarianism. It is a period unique to the context of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, one characterized by exhaustive political control. It put an end to the diversification of broadcast output, the very essence of television in the age of availability. By the mid-1980s, Romanian television broadcasting was reduced to two hours on weekdays and four to five hours on the weekends. The diversity of genres in the television schedule was replaced by content that was predominantly politicized. A report on programming inside Romanian television in the 1980s stated:

From the point of view of diversity, three main categories can be distinguished: a) politicized economic programs, b) political programs and c) other programs. … The economic programs are without content, without sense, without aim. … Point b): Telejurnalul [the news bulletin] … should get some inspiration from the Bulgarians. It offers first of all a luxury of details about domestic political events, and presents only secondarily foreign news, which only talks about the “diseases” of capitalism: unemployment, poverty, economic crisis. … c) In the category of the “other,” programs are not really diverse.

On the new schedules, news was the main TV output, complemented by political and economic programs and coverage of Ceausescu’s work visits. Other genres on offer were heavily politicized to the extent that they lost their defining generic characteristics. Music programs promoted political songs dedicated to dictator Ceausescu and his wife Elena; cultural programs talked about the political loyalties of cultural personalities; scientific programs presented the superiority of Romania’s technical advancements; and children’s and youth programs offered propagandistic education for youth. This political harmonizing of broadcast output made propaganda the dominant mode of address on Romanian television, promoting the party ideology and building on Ceausescu’s personality cult.

While broadcast output became uniform and politicized, modes of address were no longer targeted at different audience groups, but rather at the viewing pleasures of the Ceausescu family. Radio Free Europe called Romanian television at the time a “private state institution” that attended to the viewing taste of one family. A similar statement was made at an Organisation Internationale de Radiodiffusion et de Télévision (OIRT) meeting in Prague where the moderator said, “I salute the large delegation of the Socialist Republic of Romania, consisting of one person. It is a one-person delegation, because Romania makes television programs for one man.” In this period of imposed scarcity, local channels, together with the second national channel, were also closed, the main channel only offering politicized programming for the dictatorial family. Professionalism inside Romanian television was also stifled, as the example of Reflector showed.

The totalitarian period of Romanian television derailed the development of Romanian television from an era of availability to a phase of politicized scarcity. This stage, which spanned from the end of the 1970s throughout the 1980s, was marked by the supremacy of politics in Romanian television history. This was the outcome of power struggles among television professionals and political leaders by means of scheduling and programming strategies in the 1970s. This claim of national politics over Romanian television was enabled by the logic of differentiation and diversification, which was central to the era of availability. When television proved its maturity by generating a wide variety of broadcast content and addressing a wide range of audience groups throughout daily rhythms of live, the need for political control over television became evident in Ceausescu’s Romania.

The Medium of European Integration

With the fall of Ceausescu’s regime in December 1989, the politics of Romanian television was bound to change. In the days of the Revolution, staff meetings took place inside Romanian television and discussed the (non-)independent status of the public broadcaster, the dangers of television’s relations with political power, the new postcommunist scheduling, and the communist legacy of the institution. Without bringing any solutions to the problems, the meetings made it clear that a redefinition of Romanian television had to take place in terms of broadcast output, editorial professionalism, and the broadcaster’s role in a democratic society. It was a redefinition in search of diversification of broadcast output and differentiation from the communist past.

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was great interest in the former communist territories among Western broadcasters. Cooperation between the West and the East was at its peak in the early postcommunist years. In Romania, French broadcasters went to Bucharest in 1990 to exhibit their broadcast technology. Other broadcasters donated antennae to the Romanian television center, which allowed the receiving and rebroadcasting of foreign television programs on Romanian channels. Romanian news was included at that time in the global flows of information, becoming part of the World Report, for instance (Melinescu). However, the most concentrated effort to enable the European integration of former communist television centers came from the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the Western European organization in charge of broadcast exchange and cooperation in the area. In 1993, the EBU assimilated the former OIRT, which had been responsible for broadcast infrastructures in the socialist bloc. The countries formerly isolated by the Iron Curtain were gradually included in Eurovision satellite operations by installing earth stations in those countries. Loan agreements for this were arranged with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The first station was set up in Prague in March 1993, then in Bucharest, Sofia, Warsaw, and Budapest, and in 1994 in Slovenia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Slovakia (Potter 11). Most of the countries in the former Soviet Union and the former republics of Yugoslavia were integrated in the EBU infrastructures at a later phase.

Although at the international level efforts were made for the European integration of former communist broadcasters, local Romanian television was eager for cooperation with the West. According to Nicolae Melinescu,

The foreign [television] teams who came here saw our work conditions and they were very generous in offering their competence to help us. There were teams who came over and spent time here to instruct us. There were foreign universities and TV broadcasters who offered apprenticeships to our young employees. Some went to CNN, some to the Thompson Foundation, others went to Canadian or Dutch broadcasters. There was a great opening coming from them, but also from us.

Foreign transfers of content were much needed in the early postcommunist years. The most urgent necessity that Romanian television faced at the time was the increase in broadcast hours from a few hours daily to full broadcast days and from a one-channel model to a two-channel one. With this, there also came the challenge to redefine the form of broadcast output from a communist to a democratic model. An immediate solution to this was the (re)broadcasting of foreign content. Channel Two retransmitted programs of foreign TV stations for the most part. Melinescu said,

On the second channel, we would broadcast the news bulletins from Spanish, French television …, Deutsche Welle …, we also broadcast the BBC news. … People received a much diversified range of information. This continued in the first two-three years after the Revolution until we managed to rehabilitate ourselves.

Foreign films were also integrated into TV schedules. After being interrupted in 1981, Dallas came back to the Romanian TV screens. As the weekly TV guide Panoramic Radio TV announced in its 27 January-3 February 1991 issue,

Among the mysteries the dictatorship left unsolved, there is also the crime inside the Ewings’ swimming pool, which marked the sudden end to the broadcast of the series [in Romania]. If after 11 years you’re still interested in what happened, perhaps you will get a chance to find out. But for the time being, you will have to watch the first series of conflicts within the odious clan Ewing, which will be broadcast starting with Thursday, February 21. (“Ewing Redivivus”)

Simultaneously, the TV guides attempted to repopularize programs and genres from the communist regime. They presented, for instance, articles on the tradition of TV theater on Romanian television, on the ideal Romanian TV announcer, or on valued professionals of the broadcast institution. These efforts were not successful, however; forms and programs associated with the Ceausescu’s regime could no longer be revived. Former professionals were also downgraded on a political, rather than a professional, basis whereas others left the broadcast institution. This was also due to the fact that a proper public television critique was missing at the time. The critic Cleopatra Lorintiu wrote in a letter she sent to the Broadcast Institution of Television Makers and published in Panoramic Radio TV,

The only thing I can now truly hope for is for you to be able to ask for (can I say for the continuation of) a radio-television criticism that will prioritize the highest professional standards and the respect for value. [A criticism] that will analyze your profession competently, but subtly, generally, but also specifically in terms of programs, critically but not unconstructively, attentively but not vindictively. Before many other rights, which I am sure you deserve and will ask for, I humbly believe it is important and necessary for you to have a critical, objective and pertinent assessment of what you are doing, so as to avoid the confusion of values and the anarchy of criteria.

Under these circumstances, Romanian television produced new forms and modes of address that were absent from the communist TV schedules, such as advertisements, the daily horoscope, religious programs, talk shows, and quiz shows. Advertisements introduced to Romanian audiences Western products for the first time. The daily horoscope was a ten-minute segment at the beginning of the schedule while religious programs broadcast church masses and issues of religious interest on Sunday morning. The programs extended the broadcast output to audience groups that were previously not recognized by Ceausescu’s regime.

However, the most popular postcommunist genres were the talk show and the quiz show. The advent of talk shows was timely on Romanian television. A television viewer wrote to the editorial board of the TV guide Panoramic Radio TV in February 1990: “I would like to ask you to include in the schedule in the near future a series of programs discussing the alphabet of democracy. You should invite to these programs competent people, political scientists, jurists, specialists in constitutional law.” At the beginning of 1990, the talk show was used as a platform for introducing new political actors. The format took the form of a televised debate or a round table. The programs were often moderated by new president of television Razvan Theodorescu and vice director Emanuel Valeriu. By June 1990, the talk show fell victim to public criticism. The new television management, Theodorescu and Valeriu, who were in the center of the broadcasts, were criticized for favoring the new political regime and not allowing a voice for the opposition.

The quiz show had a similar fate. The first quiz show on Romanian television was Robingo, broadcast for the first time in August 1993. It was a prime-time program, under a UK license. The program was moderated by a newcomer at the television center in Bucharest, a young entertaining presence on the screen. Soon after its first broadcast, Robingo was involved in a political scandal. As Diana Lazar noted in an article in Cotidianul on 7 May 2007, the new president of television at the time, Paul Everac, organized that year the first live New Year’s program broadcast simultaneously from three different studios. He himself participated in the show without going through the usual preselection and competed for the high prizes that the show advertised. This generated a lot of public criticism. Although quiz shows were associated with public scandals already in the 1950s in America (Mittel xv), the scandal generated by Robingo had a political character that revealed that politics was still central to the new postcommunist, Western-inspired television forms.

In the aftermath of the revolution, television in Romania was compensating for its need for diversification and differentiation by means of Western transfers (rebroadcasting Western content), exchanges (cooperation with the West), and adaptations (as was the case of the new postcommunist genres). Whereas all the other European broadcasters were at the peak of the availability era in the early 1990s, Romanian television was coming out of a national regime that had derailed its course from an era of availability to an era of imposed scarcity. Under these circumstances, the Romanian broadcaster found itself in need of diversification of its broadcast output. Integration with the West became a priority, and this took attention away from national broadcast politics. Although efforts were made to welcome Romanian television back to Europe, the national legacy of television remained in crisis. Issues of political interferences and a lack of a proper local public critique kept the Romanian broadcaster within the political discourse of the communist regime. The collapse of communism seemed to offer a hastened integration within the Western infrastructures, but this integration appeared to erase the very national differences that a former communist broadcaster would bring to Europe. In June 1990, the live broadcasting of the bloody attacks against opposition voices to the newly elected government in Romania shocked the world and alerted it to the country’s democratic handicaps. The U.S. State Department issued at the time the following official statement:

Attacks organized against the headquarters of oppositional political parties and independent newspapers and attacks against the politicians who were democratically elected through peaceful means, by workers personally summoned to Bucharest by President Iliescu, are threatening to bring totalitarianism back to Romania. We are asking President Iliescu and his government to immediately stop any action against the incipient process of democracy in Romania. Particularly, he must call back from the streets all those workers organized into violent groups (“vigilantes”) and publicly pledge that these people will never be encouraged to come back. (qtd. in Berry 49)

The efforts of integration within the Western audiovisual landscape concealed the political handicaps of the Romanian broadcaster just freed from dictatorial practices of control. Cooperation with Western broadcasters and the adoption of Western program forms did not resolve the political differences of Romanian television, which remained subject to political power. These failed attempts at integration marked what Ellis referred to as a “pseudo-triumph” of West versus East, which denied the return of “history and difference” to Europe (Ellis 62). The new opportunity created by the political reconfiguration of Europe engaged communist television in a political process of European assimilation and neglected television as a national medium. Upon the fall of communism in Romania in 1989, European broadcast politics appeared to be at center of the postcommunist rehabilitation of Romanian television, while the state leadership maintained its control over the institution. The postdictatorial search for the diversification and differentiation of Romanian television maintained the national political interest in the broadcast institution. At the same time, it justified the entrance of Romanian television into the space of European politics.


Political control was not the defining characteristic of communist television in Romania, nor has the development of the Romanian broadcasting institution differed completely from Western broadcasters. In fact, Romanian television has undergone the same stages of development that Ellis identified in the British context up until 1990s: the era of scarcity and the era of availability. In the early phase of its development, which coincided with Ellis’s era of scarcity, Romanian television was predominantly guided by relations with foreign broadcasters and connections with other media (radio or film). Such a context characterized early television across the Europe as a whole. In this early stage, the politics of control was not representative of Romanian television. It was on the initiation of Romanian television into the era of availability, when television became a medium of differentiation and diversification under the communist regime, that political interest in the broadcasting institution gained ground. This transformed Romanian television into a platform of power struggles between television professionals and Ceausescu’s politics, with the exclusive victory of the latter in the 1980s. This brought Romanian television to an exceptional stage: the dictatorial stage characterized by scarcity and politicized content. After the fall of communism in 1989, Romanian television’s search for diversification and differentiation introduced it to the sphere of European broadcast politics, while the broadcaster maintained its former submissive relation to national state power.

Romanian television follows the same model of development that Ellis designed for British television. Understanding the dynamics of television in each era provides useful insights into when and how television lent itself to political control. The era of scarcity showed television to be a predominantly transnational medium, which engendered cross-border exchanges and resemblances among broadcasters across Europe and undermined national politics. It was only in the era of availability, when television consolidated its aesthetic forms and social role, that national politics played an increasing role in the workings of the medium. It was at this stage that television fulfilled its status as a national medium and its relations to national politics became tighter. Under former communist regimes such as Romania’s, these relations took the form of political control. Nevertheless, the dynamics of Romanian television in the availability era also provide insights into alternative factors that played a relevant role in the development of the medium despite political control: television professionals in the 1970s and European broadcast politics in the post-communist period.

Television in the former communist Eastern Europe is in need of approaches that produce television histories, rather than political histories of television. That means emerging studies on Eastern European television need to look first and foremost at the medium itself before understanding how it related to its political context. The scarce scholarship available on Eastern European television so far has told primarily a political story, looking into the political context of television and reproducing the Cold War history of divisions between the East and the West. However, television in this geopolitical part of Europe has its own story to tell, a story that may reshape the map of Cold War Europe, a story that may tell about similarities and exchanges of television across Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, and a story that may explicate how television lost its power struggle to political regimes of control later in its development. This article attempted to tell about such a television story.