In its 27-year-old history, Greek TV networks have been through multiple transformations but one – ownership status. All major TV channels have been in the hands of the same businessmen, most of them with a background in the press and Greek shipping.
In the past couple of years, though, two genre-defining factors are becoming a catalyst for an emerging media landscape, introducing at least two new players in the game. The first is the ever-looming financial crisis, the second is the left-wing government’s attempts to construct its own media influence.
From 1990, when Mega Channel became the first privately-owned TV network operated by the publishers of two major, socialist-leaning newspapers, the Greek TV landscape remained mostly unchanged.
Ship owner Minoas Kyriakou operated the second private TV station, traditionally leaning conservatively and the Vardinogiannis family, also shipping magnets, secured a license for the entertainment-oriented Star Channel.
With the subsequent addition of the Alafouzos ship-owning family’s Skai TV and leading insurance agency owner Dimitris Kondominas’ Alpha TV, the television landscape was all but complete. After all, four major TV networks in a small country such as Greece are more than enough to share the market.
Various minor players appeared in the TV frequencies in the last 20 years. But most of them have come and gone, unable to sustain a substantial enough piece of the advertising pie.
The word “business” is rather abused when it comes to Greek TV networks. How can a media operation be considered a business when it’s guaranteed to offer its owner and shareholders no profit in the foreseeable future?
In order to bypass the lack of profit, TV owners reportedly used political and financial influence as their main guide of operations. They have been accused of allowing their personal interests to dictate their networks’ political views.
In that sense, they are not much different than the majority of media owners around the world, fit to scale, naturally. The only major difference is that due to bureaucracy, good old fashioned procrastination and a shady give and take with politicians, Greek TV networks never actually received a proper, permanent license from the state.
That’s where the new, left-wing government saw a way in. By using the permanent license argument as an excuse, PM Alexis Tsipras and his government media czar Nikos Pappas attempted to reshuffle the TV playing field to their liking.
The utterly ridiculous license bidding process they organised in the summer of 2016, ended up blowing up in their faces. While trying to humiliate the established TV bidders by locking them in adjoining rooms, incommunicado, for almost three days with practically no sleep, in the end the bidding process was rejected by the country’s supreme court.
The government’s back-up plan was to return with a new license bill to be discussed by the Greek Radio and Television Council (ESR) in the coming months. The independent authority charged with issuing TV licenses, was not considered in the original bidding process.
Meanwhile, taking advantage of the fall of the old TV guard and the ambitions of new players with post-recession money, the government worked on building political bridges. Their efforts soon bore fruit on the face of Ivan Savvides, a Greek-Russian mogul interested in media.
Savvides, PAOK Salonika football club owner, was already using extremely flattering words for Tsipras -at one point publicly comparing him to Russian president Vladimir Putin- before he unsuccessfully bid for a TV frequency, in the 2016 process.
A few months ago, right after he bought the decaying Pegasus Publications from the Bobolas construction-owning family, and long before the new license bidding was announced, Savvides bought “E” channel, a rising force in the new TV landscape.
With a brand new program coming up in January, the new “E” is expected to be a vehicle for Syriza-friendly news and opinions. With the high circulation Ethnos newspaper, a part of the Pegasus publications, and “E” channel, Savvides is the top media man for Tsipras’ message.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the majority of the traditional TV owners are opposed to the government policies and friendly to New Democracy. When Mega Channel was declared bankrupt, due to a series of loans and the owners’ bad management, a new shipping magnate came to the rescue.
Having already bought Lambrakis Publications, owner of Ta Nea, the most highly circulated Greek newspaper, Olympiakos Piraeus owner and shipping magnate Vangelis Marinakis also bought a 20% stake of Mega Channel.
Although Marinakis has yet to reach an agreement with the rest of the major Mega channel shareholders (namely the Vardinogiannis shipping family), to start running it with fresh financing, it is just a matter of time before that happens.
Marinakis, who participated in the 2016 bidding process and won one TV license, only to see the bidding annulled in court, is against the Syriza policies and is coordinating both his Piraeus football club and his newly acquired newspaper to favour main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, with whose family there are reported ties.
But Marinakis is not without problems of his own, namely a judicial process against him in full swing for football match fixing and “participation in a criminal football enterprise”. With the current government openly favouring his conviction, the shipping magnet has all the more reasons to rush the agreement, on Mega Channel.
Yiannis Alafouzos is the second one of the old guard after Star Channel’s Vardinogiannis family who has been a constant in the TV landscape. His Skai TV channel has been battling against the government’s policies for three years.
After five years of practically open hostilities, with (former Skai partner) Vaggelis Marinakis, over football rivalry (he is the owner of Panathinaikos), Alafouzos has reportedly allied himself again with Marinakis, to combine efforts against the Syriza-led government.
And there you have it. The new, post-recession television landscape consisted of some old and some new players. It is like a new chess board which still follows the same rules. Rules which have little to do with business, and everything to do with politics.