Commercial television struggles to attract Swiss viewers

Private broadcasters are struggling to pay their way Keystone Archive

The recent collapse of Tele 24, one of Switzerland's first commercial television stations to broadcast nationally, has focused attention on the direction of the Swiss television industry.

This content was published on October 8, 2001 minutes

The publicly funded Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), which owns swissinfo, has dominated the market since its first television transmission in Switzerland on July 20, 1953.

Despite repeated attempts by private companies to challenge the SBC's monopoly of the airwaves, commercial operators have consistently failed to attract significant numbers of Swiss television viewers.

One of the commercial upstarts hoping to buck the trend is TV3, currently Switzerland's only national commercial broadcaster.

In an interview with swissinfo, the managing director of TV3, Jürg Wildberger, said he was confident his company - a joint venture between Switzerland's Tamedia and the Luxembourg-based SBS Broadcasting - would not follow Tele 24 along the path towards an early demise.

Another choice

"I firmly believe there is an alternative to the public broadcaster and that it can also be an economic success," Wildberger said.

TV3, which began transmission in September 1999, broadcasts a mix of popular entertainment shows, imported dramas and films in the Swiss-German language.

Wildberger admits TV3 made the mistake at launch of attempting to rival SBC's main channel, SF1, by focusing its output on news and current affairs.

"If you are a private channel and focus on news, you have a problem," said Wildberger, a former SBC employee and founder of the public broadcaster's flagship nightly news programme, "10 vor 10".

"We quickly learnt that our viewers do not expect news on our channel. They say they are very happy with news on SF1 and when they watch TV3 they are looking for something different," Wildberger said.

TV3's nightly news programme was dropped months after launch and has since been replaced by a truncated, eight-minute news summary. Reality-based game shows now fill TV3's prime-time evening schedules.

"In the first twelve months we had a really hard time, but after the first year we came out with 'Big Brother', 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?' and 'Expedition Robinson' and so we then became very successful in the viewing and advertising markets."

In the red

Despite the recent success, TV3 remains in the red and Wildberger admits the first signs of profit are still a long way off.

"We do not expect to make a profit before 2003," he told swissinfo.

Werner Meier, a professor of media studies at the University of Zurich, says the biggest hurdle for commercial broadcasters struggling to survive in Switzerland is viewers' loyalty to the public broadcaster.

"Switzerland has a long tradition of public broadcasting," Meier said.

"SBC has become an extremely important instrument for the integration of the country's many different cantons and regions and nobody should underestimate the Swiss people's loyalty to the public broadcaster."

Limited Swiss market

Another challenge, argues Meier, is the limited advertising market in Switzerland, which is dwarfed by the media landscape in neighbouring Germany.

But Wildberger believes TV3 does offer a genuine alternative to foreign commercial broadcasters.

"Of course people can watch 'Millionaire' on [the German channel] RTL, but it's a programme which works in every local market."

"People like to see a Swiss 'Millionaire' and the same goes for 'Big Brother'. For the Swiss, it's a local show because it shows Swiss people in a house in Switzerland talking in Swiss dialect."

"In fact, people don't watch the German version of 'Big Brother' if we are on air," he added.

Though commercial operators have lobbied the government to divert some of the revenue earned through the sale of compulsory TV licences towards promoting alternatives to SBC, Meier says this is not the way to challenge the public broadcaster's monopoly.

"We have had a monopoly for years and are used to it. It would be dangerous if we suddenly turned around and said 'let's weaken the public broadcaster and give the upstarts a boost' because the result would be a large number of weak companies, and that is not in anybody's interest."

Regional broadcasters in trouble

Switzerland's television industry has undergone a minor revolution at a local level as well as a national one over the last five years.

Tele Bärn, which broadcasts a nightly, hour-long programme of regional news and features throughout the Bernese Oberland, was one of the first commercial channels to be launched in Switzerland when it began transmissions in March 1995.

Proof of just how volatile the industry is came a year later, when the channel collapsed under massive debt. The station was re-launched in March 2000 but has yet to lift itself out of the red.

Matthias Lauterburg, head of news at the channel, says regional television can survive by complimenting rather than challenging the national broadcaster.

"What is important is that we produce a news programme about the region for the region," Lauterburg told swissinfo.

"A cocktail of entertainment and erotic programmes and lifestyle shows does not work. It is absolutely clear that regional television cannot compete on this level. Our core output is and must remain local news."

Financial deficit

Lauterburg freely admits his company's financial position remains precarious.

"It's no secret that we remain in deficit and next year will be no different. We will be in the red for the next few years," Lauterburg said.

Though Lauterburg remains upbeat about the future of local television, Meier says the greatest barrier to commercial success at a regional level is public indifference.

"For sure, people want to read about local events in their newspapers, but it certainly does not follow that they also want local television - that is something completely different," Meier told swissinfo.

"And of course the other stumbling block is that there are simply not enough interesting things going on at a local level. What is there to broadcast? There are not enough events and of course they don't have enough money to cover things even if they did happen."

But, Meier argues, it is too early to talk of the death of private television in Switzerland.

"There is a niche market for regional television, but those in charge must be aware that they will never make a large amount of money from it. People are just going to have to set their sights a bit lower."

by Ramsey Zarifeh

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