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Mega Channel ordered to shut down

Once a powerhouse of Greek television, the heavily indebted Mega Channel may disappear from the airwaves for good

In a decision publicized earlier today, Mega Channel, once Greece’s biggest and highest-rated station and the first national private television channel to begin broadcasting in Greece, breaking state broadcaster ERT’s monopoly in 1989, has been ordered to cease operations.

In a 6-3 decision reached by Greece’s National Committee for Radio and Television (ESR), Mega Channel was ordered to shut down. National digital television network operator DIGEA and the National Commission for Telecommunications and Post (EETT), the regulatory authority in charge of Greece’s audiovisual spectrum, will be informed of the decision and will be asked to remove Mega Channel’s signal from the airwaves.

While the heavily indebted Mega Channel is practically bankrupt and has barely been operational since September 2016, broadcasting a continuous cycle of reruns and movies with little to no live programming, the ESR’s decision is only indirectly related to the station’s financial woes.

According to the ESR decision, Mega Channel has for years operated as a news-based station, and never filed an application with the ESR to change its classification from a news-based to an entertainment-based station, despite not airing news or information programming since September 2016. Furthermore, Mega Channel did not submit an application for a nationwide television license in the ongoing tender for seven such licenses for news-based stations. As a result, the ESR ruled that Mega Channel is to terminate its operations.

Employees from Mega Channel, who have been unpaid for almost two years, have stated that they will file an appeal against the ESR’s decision. Employees have been attempting to keep the station afloat even as they themselves have been unpaid, in hopes (perhaps foolishly) of salvaging the station and their jobs.

Notably, in the cases of two other stations, Macedonia TV (m.) and ART, which currently broadcast nationwide and which did not apply for a license under the current tender for news-based stations, the ESR was more lenient. Macedonia TV, which never broadcast more than token news programming, has been allowed to continue broadcasting as an entertainment-based station, until such time as a new tender for licenses for entertainment-only stations is issued. ART, owned by the right-wing LAOS political party, received a license to broadcast in the Athens region in 1993 but later expanded nationwide. It will now revert back to broadcasting only in the Athens region, according to a recent ESR decision.

The shutdown of Mega Channel may also create significant collateral damage, as the outstanding debts of the station and its parent companies totaled €622 million as of 2016. Greek banks, already on life support due to repeated taxpayer-funded recapitalizations, will bear the brunt of any official bankruptcy which follows, with untold consequences for the Greek banking system and Greek economy.

Nevertheless, there are many who will celebrate Mega Channel’s imminent demise. For years it was closely associated with the highly corrupt Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and was one of the biggest media cheerleaders of the memorandum agreements between Greece and the “troika” (European Union, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) and the austerity measures which were part and parcel of these agreements. However, the official reasons for its shutdown by the ESR could be considered disturbing.

In Greece, both television and radio stations have been forced to classify their programming as “news-oriented” or “entertainment-oriented.” Until 2013, it was illegal to change classifications. An overnight law passed during the sleepy vacation month of August of that year made a slight modification: while “news-oriented” stations were now allowed to change classifications, “entertainment-oriented” stations were not. This has in effect created a closed market for news-oriented television and radio stations.

Moreover, the current licensing bid for seven nationwide news-oriented licenses is laughable at best and highly hypocritical and fraudulent at worst. Based on claims that the Greek airwaves do not have the capacity for more than a limited number of stations, an artificially low number of licenses (seven) was tendered, while an indeterminate number of national licenses entertainment-only stations may or may not be issued in the future. Instead of handling television licensing in one go and ensuring a level playing field and certainty in the television industry, the current process put forth by the “radical leftist” SYRIZA-led government is piecemeal and haphazard.

Furthermore, by ensuring a limited number of licenses and a high starting bid (€35 million), it became all but certain that only the oligarchs with the deepest pockets could afford to submit an application. This has proven to be the case, as the six applicants for the seven permits all represent prominent oligarchs, such as the Kyriakou family (ANT1), Yiannis Alafouzos (Skai), the Vardinogiannis family (Star Channel), Dimitris Kontominas (Alpha), and SYRIZA favorites Ivan Savvidis (Epsilon TV) and Dimitris Maris (for a new station not yet on the air).

This from the same government which once pledged to “rout the oligarchs” and which continues to claim that it is “cleaning up the airwaves,” much as it has “cleaned up” Greek football…

Update: Following a temporary order issued on Thursday, March 15 by Greece’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, Mega Channel’s shutdown has been temporarily blocked, pending the final outcome of the legal cases lodged against the current licensing procedure, which will be heard by the court in early May.

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