Marko Milosavljevič wrote that the Serbian leadership uses football to attract them, hoping to lock the Balkan audiences on their favorite TV channels with anti-Western narratives. This is in line with the country’s growing ties with China, Russia, and Hungary. echo.
Marko Milosavljevič is a professor of journalism at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. And leading researchers and policy experts on media policy issues in the Balkans.
In the 1990s, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević seemed to open up the Serbian television market by allowing a few private companies to broadcast. However, these companies must sign a contract with the national broadcaster RTS, which means that only those programs that meet Milosevic’s taste can operate.
Milosevic particularly likes broadcasters like the infamous Pink TV, which provide gorgeous entertainment, uninterrupted turbo folk music on a huge stage, and there seem to be countless half-naked singers.
These programs effectively distracted people from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They helped weaken the people’s sensitivity to the bloody siege of Vukovar, Srebrenica and Dubrovnik. They also allow the audience to fully accept government propaganda because they do not provide space for other political views.
Almost 30 years later, the situation in Serbia is still strikingly similar. However, what now distracts people from reality is not turbo folk music, but sports, and most importantly, the Premier League.
Milošević has been replaced by his former Minister of Information Aleksander Vučić, while state-owned cable and broadband provider Telekom Srbija has taken over from RTS. But the tactics remain the same.
For the past 18 months, Telekom Srbija, through its subsidiary Arena Sports, has been purchasing the broadcasting rights of major world events. Its current focus is the jewel in the crown-the Premier League.
Telekom Srbija recently put forward a huge bid to obtain exclusive screening rights for competitions held in Serbia and six other countries in the region (including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia) between 2022 and 2028.
By purchasing these rights, the purpose is not only to become the main cable operator in Serbia, but also to become the main media player in the entire Balkan region. This is part of Vucic’s radical strategy of using Serbian telecommunications as a tool to spread the influence of his regime and promote Serbia’s geopolitical agenda.
In order for the policy to work, attractive TV content is the key. As Rupert Murdoch recognized in the 1990s, providing football services to subscribers (especially the Premier League) is a reliable way to get them to sign. This is especially true in the football-mad Western Balkans.
It is no coincidence that Telekom Srbija has obtained funds to purchase broadcast rights for the Premier League and other major events at ridiculously high prices. Telekom Serbija has paid five times the copyright fees in Germany and Austria for Italy, France and the league in the former Yugoslavia.
Considering that there are only 20 million viewers in the Western Balkans, while the number of viewers in Germany and Austria is 90 million, this mismatch becomes more apparent.
Why is Telekom Srbija, a state-owned enterprise in a poor country, willing to pay such an obviously unprofitable price? How does it provide a return on taxpayers’ money investment?
The answer is that value is political. Serbian leaders hope to lock Balkan audiences on their channel through their anti-Western narrative, which echoes the country’s growing ties with countries such as China, Russia, and Hungary.
At the same time, it wants to disrupt the competition in the telecommunications and media distribution markets and make independent media unable to operate through bankruptcy. This will prevent political opposition from obtaining national television coverage and help further consolidate the ruling party’s control of power.
By selling media rights to Serbian Telecom, the Premier League may become Vucic’s accomplices, exacerbating Serbia’s democratic defects and consolidating his increasingly authoritarian rule.
There is no doubt that the Premier League will welcome potential buyers who are willing to use taxpayer money to pay seemingly unreasonable amounts for their media rights.
There are risks to business advantages. The most watched football league in the world may become a modern version of the 1990s turbo ballad during Milosevic’s reign: colorful distractions on harsh political realities and human rights issues, like dancing in miniskirts The singer’s huge stage helped cover up wartime atrocities.
The question is, does the Premier League want to participate in this game?