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#24 - JRL 7004
Entertaining the masses in Transition
By Sam Vaknin
UPI Senior Business Correspondent

SKOPJE, Macedonia, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Karl Marx decried religion as "opium for the masses." Yet no divine worship has attained the intensity of the fatuous obsession of Central and East Europeans with the diet of inane conspiracy theories, gaudy soap operas and televised gambling they are fed daily by their local media.

There is little else offered except the interminable babble of self-important politicians. It is the rule of the abysmally lowest common denominator.

In Macedonia, it is impossible to avoid a certain entertainer, a graceless Neanderthal hulk with a stentorian voice, deafeningly employed in a doomed attempt to appear suavely quaint and uproariously waggish. The natives love him.

Private, commercial, TV in the Czech Republic -- notably "Nova" -- has surpassed its American role models. It has long been reduced to a concoction of soft porn, sound-bite tabloid journalism and Latin American "telenovelas". Jan Culik, publisher of the influential Czech Internet daily, Britske listy, once described its programming as "sex, violence and voyeurism ... a tabloid approach."

The situation is no different, nor much improved, elsewhere, from Russia to Slovenia. As Andrew Stroehlein, former editor in chief of Central Europe Review, so aptly put it -- "Garbage in, money out."

This sad state of affairs was brought on by a confluence of economic fads (such as privatization, commercialization and foreign ownership) and technologies of narrowcasting -- satellites, video cassette recorders, cable TV, regional and local "stealth" TV stations and, in the not so distant future, Internet broadband and HDTV.

Writing in Central Europe Review about the Romanian scene, Catherine Lovatt observed that "television was one medium through which Romanians could vicariously experience the "Western" dream. The popularity of programs such as "Melrose Place" indicates a preference for certain lifestyles -- lifestyles that are as glamorous as they are out of reach. The seemingly unabating craving for commercial TV has been fuelled by the need to escape the Communist past and the stresses of today's reality."

Grasping its importance as a tool of all-pervasive indoctrination, television was introduced early on by the communist masters of the region. Still -- tortuous stretches of personality cult and blatant, laughable, propaganda aside -- monopolistic, state-owned communist TV, not encumbered by the need to compete, offered an admirable menu of educational, cultural and horizon expanding programming.

It is all gone now. The region is drowning in cheaply produced mock talk shows, hundreds of episodes of Latin American serials, hours on end of live bingo and lottery drawings, tattered B movies, pirated new releases and sitcoms and compulsively repeated newscasts.

From Ukraine to Bulgaria, commercial channels are prone to featuring occultists, conspiracy theorists, anti-Semitic "historians," hate speech proponents, racists, rabid nationalists and other unadulterated wackos and have taken to vigorously promoting their pet peeves and outlandish conjectures.

The intrigue-inclined postulate that this visual effluent is intended to numb its hapless recipients and render them oblivious to the insufferable drudgery of their dreary, crime-infested, corruption-laden and, in general, rather doomed lives. It is instigated by unscrupulous politicians, they whisper, eyes darting nervously. It is a form of state-sponsored drug, also known as escapism.

How to reconcile this paranoid depiction of a predatory state with the fact that most private television stations throughout the region are owned by hard-nosed, often foreign, businessmen?

The suspicious point to the fact that "local content" and "cultural minimum" license requirements are rarely imposed by regulators. National broadcasting permits were granted to cronies and insiders and withheld from potential "troublemakers" and dissidents.

It is also true that, as Stroehlein puts it, there is a massive "repatriation of profits generated from newly private stations to Western firms." As a result, "local production companies are losing out, and the loss of funds damages the domestic entertainment and arts industry and the economy as a whole."

And the collusion-minded have a point. The dumbing-down of audiences is as dangerous to newfound political and economic freedoms as are more explicit forms of repression. Both democracy and the free market will not survive long in the absence of an informed, alert, intellectually agile public. It is hard to retain one's critical faculties under the onslaught of televised conspicuous consumption and the unmitigated folly of mass entertainers.

Many scholars and media observers believe that the battle has already been lost.

Peter Bajomi-Lzr, associate professor at the Communication Department of Kodolanyi University College, Budapest-Szekesfehervar in Hungary, wrote in January 2002 in a comparative study titled "Public Service Television in East Central Europe": "The transformation of public service television from a tool of agitation and propaganda into an agent of democratic control has been but a partial success in East Central Europe. Public service television channels have failed to find their identities and audiences in a market dominated by commercial broadcasters. Some of them are underfunded and their journalists encounter political pressure."

But even where public broadcasters enjoy the proceeds of a BBC-like television tax -- as in Macedonia -- they fail to attract spectators. The stark reality is that when people are faced with a choice between intellectually demanding and challenging programs and easily digestible variety shows they plump for the latter. It is easy to condition people to complacent passivity and inordinately tough to snap out of it once exposed.

The inhabitants of central and East Europe are mentally intoxicated. The hangover may never happen.

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