Game on for the Premier League in Serbia?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Logo of Serbia's Pink TV [RSF]

Luring them with football, Serbia’s leadership wants to lock Balkan audiences into their favoured TV channels carrying anti-Western narratives, which corresponds with the country’s growing ties to the likes of China, Russia, and Hungary, writes Marko Milosavljevič.

Marko Milosavljevič is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and a leading researcher and policy expert on issues of media policy in the Balkans.

In the 1990s, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević appeared to liberalise the Serbian TV market by allowing a select few private companies to broadcast. However, these companies had to have a contract with the state broadcaster, RTS, meaning that only those with shows that were to Milošević’s taste were allowed to operate.

Milošević particularly liked broadcasters such as the notorious TV Pink, which offered glitzy entertainment featuring non-stop turbo folk music on giant stages with seemingly endless numbers of semi-naked singers.

These programmes provided a useful distraction from the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They helped dull the sensitivities of the population to the bloody sieges of Vukovar, Srebrenica and Dubrovnik. They also kept viewers on an exclusive diet of government propaganda because they offered no space for alternative political views.

Almost 30 years later, the situation in Serbia remains eerily similar. Now, however, it is not turbo folk music that is used to distract people from reality, but sport, and most importantly, English Premier League football.

Milošević has been replaced by his former information minister, Aleksander Vučić and Telekom Srbija, the state-owned cable and broadband provider, has taken over from RTS. But the tactics remain the same.

Over the past 18 months, Telekom Srbija, through its subsidiary, Arena Sports, has been buying up rights to the world’s major tournaments. Its focus now is on the jewel in the crown – the Premier League.

Telekom Srbija recently tabled a huge bid for exclusive rights to show the games between 2022 and 2028 in Serbia and six other countries in the region, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia.

By buying these rights, the intention is not just to be the dominant cable operator in Serbia but to be a major media player across the Balkans region. This is part of an aggressive strategy by Vučić to spread his regime’s influence and promote Serbia’s geopolitical agenda using Telekom Srbija as a tool.

To make the policy work, attractive TV content is key. Just as Rupert Murdoch recognised in the 1990s, making football available to subscribers – especially the Premier League – is a sure way to sign them up. And particularly so in the football-mad Western Balkans.

It is no coincidence that Telekom Srbija has received funds to purchase rights to the Premier League and other major tournaments at ridiculously high prices. Telekom Serbija has already paid five times more to show the Italian, French and leagues in the former Yugoslavia than was paid for the rights in Germany and Austria.

This mismatch becomes even more glaring when considering the audience in the Western Balkans is only 20 million compared to 90 million in Germany and Austria.

Why would Telekom Srbija, a state-owned company in a poor country, be willing to pay such an obviously un-profitable price? How can it provide a return on this investment of taxpayers’ money?

The answer is that the value is political. Serbia’s leadership want to lock Balkan audiences into their channels with its anti-western narratives, which correspond with the country’s growing ties to the likes of China, Russia and Hungary.

At the same time, it wants to destroy competition in the telecoms and media distribution market and make it impossible for independent media to operate by bankrupting them. This will prevent the political opposition from having access to national television coverage and help further solidify the ruling party’s grip on power.

By selling media rights to Telekom Srbija, the Premier League risks making itself an accomplice to Vučić in exacerbating Serbia’s democratic deficiencies and cementing in place his increasingly authoritarian rule.

The Premier League will no doubt welcome a potential buyer willing to draw on taxpayers’ money to pay a seemingly irrational sum for its media rights.

With the commercial upside there is also risk. The world’s most watched football league could become the modern equivalent of 1990s turbo folk during Milošević’s regime: a colourful distraction from harsh political realities and human rights issues, just as the giant stages full of dancing singers in miniskirts helped to cover-up war time atrocities.

The question is, does the Premier League want to participate in this game?

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