Romania's 'Bell' tolls for new era

News shows help drive Realitatea in expanding market

BUCHAREST, Romania -- A media revolution is under way in a state-of-the art TV studio housed in a gloomy old Communist-era building in the Romanian capital.

It's mid-morning in Realitatea's studio and "Opening Bell," the flagship financial show of the new Money Channel, is hitting its stride.

"Opening Bell's" Andreea Negru, whose knowledge of economics is as sharp as her bright red power-dress jacket and skirt, and personable male co-anchor Sorin Freciu personify the bold new look of TV across Eastern Europe.

The show is modeled, like so many similar shows in Eastern Europe's emerging markets, on a CNBC-style look and is a key programming element for fast-growing Romanian TV and media group Realitatea.

The faded elegance of Bucharest stands in sharp contrast to the fast-paced "Opening Bell" and its hip hosts -- and in sharper contrast still to the explosive rate of change in the local media business.

Sorin Enache, Realitatea's general manager, sketched out the figures behind Romania's fast-growing media market recently at a press briefing.

There's been rapid growth in GDP (currently about $3,600 per capita) and steady growth of about 5% per annum is forecast for the next three years. Television advertising spending has witnessed strong growth over the past two years, with a 35% increase to $243 million this year from $180 million in 2005 and annual growth of 25% forecasted through 2009. Of overall media advertising spend, television's share in Romania has grown from 60% in 2000 to 65% in 2005. The only other sectors to see any growth are radio and the Internet.

"There are many television channels. They are very aggressive and active, much more active than traditional print and radio," Enache said, adding that there are some 70 channels, including 30 Romanian, available through cable (which has near 90% penetration in the country). Of these, 18 are general channels and the rest niche.

RealitateaTV, Romania's first niche news channel founded in 2001, has gone from 0.7% market share in 2002 to 5% today -- fourth behind ProTV (17.3%), TVR1 (11.9%) and Acasa (9.5%).

"Today, niche channels are taking market share from established players," Enache added.

It's precisely that knowledge that is fueling a major expansion at Realitatea where, since a relaunch under a new management team in October 2004, the company's ethos has been to create a high-quality and trustworthy relationship between television and the public as part of its drive to help support Romania's rapid development and reintegration into modern Europe.

With its rolling, 24-hour news operation -- which works closely with CNN -- and new services such as the Money Channel (where a code of ethics dictates staff can have no stocks, shares or business interests), recently launched business services-oriented news agency News In, print publishing group Catavencu Press Group and a radio arm, Realitatea is in all the key strategic media sectors.

Now its policy is expansion into further profitable niches. In March, it will launch the first localized version of Britain Zonemedia's international Romantica-branded women's entertainment channel. Last month, it signed a partnership deal with Zonemedia in which Realitatea will take a 49% stake in the 24/7 venture.

"There will be eight hours a day of fresh programming, with three or four hours locally produced, including Romanian Latin American-style telenovelas specially scripted by a top Argentinean writer," general manager Enache said.

Other telenovelas will not simply be subtitled library stock but will be specifically purchased for the channel. The partners will share monthly revenues of 4 euro cents per head from UPC cable network's 1 million subscribers, an unusual deal for a format that in Romania typically sees the channel paying cable distributors for a place in their subscriber package.

The channel will go up against established Romanian women's channel Acasa, which earns strong margins from its virtual monopoly in the field. Aiming at a slightly older demographic than Acasa (women 35 and up), Realitatea says a single rating point and 6% share will give it the profit it seeks.

But it's not all just the bottom line. Assuming a public broadcast mantle as part of its business ethos, Realitatea, along with French and Bulgarian partners, is launching cable and satellite Balkan Television Network in June. A sort of regional version of Euronews, the pan-Balkans lifestyle and news network is designed to inform and bring together the patchwork peoples of a region with a long and often troubled history.

"People in the Balkans may know something about Western Europe but very little about each other," Enache said, adding that shared programming dubbed into local languages will be broadcast across a region that covers Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria.