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Media Landscapes

Hungary

Written by Beke Dániel

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Hungary is a landlocked country in the Carpathian Basin, Central Europe, with a population of around 10 million. The official language is Hungarian. Culturally, the country is comprised of a colourful mix of majority Hungarians (Magyars) and Roma, Jewish, German, Croat, Serb, Romanian, Slovak, Chinese and Bulgarian minorities. Under Soviet occupation after World War II, the country was part of the communist bloc until the peaceful, negotiated political transition in 1990. Since the first free elections in 1990, Hungarian democracy has been stable, with all governments serving their full four-year terms and the economy picking up after the restructuring along market principles.

Hungary’s access to the European Union in 2004 confirmed the process of democratisation. At the same time, civil society, like in post-communist countries elsewhere, is recognised to be weak. Citizen participation remains relatively low, with an average 64.4 percent turnout at the last two elections, and membership in political, professional, and voluntary organisations lower than the EU average. Participation in the EU parliamentary elections is even lower, similarly to the neighbouring EU states: in 2004 and 2009 only 35-37 percent of the voters turned up to vote.

As in all post-communist countries, the media in Hungary is defined by the heritage of decades of communist rule and the influence of market mechanisms introduced in the country after 1990. The ownership structure of the media was radically transformed from the communist times when all media were state-controlled. The media’s role in society was also re-conceptualised according to democratic norms. Yet the historical heritage of the communist regime continues to create points of tension to this day, by serving as a reference point in much of the political, economic and ethical debates centred on the media. With its population of 10 million, Hungary is a small market, where the diversity of media cannot be ensured through market mechanisms exclusively. Consequently, the country’s media landscape is characterised by a duality of market principles and different forms of state intervention.

Newspaper readership remains in the middle tier of European countries. Foreign ownership dominates the press. Hungary has 10 national and 24 local dailies. All of these newspapers are privately owned, by foreign owners in the majority of cases. Tabloid and magazine segments have been growing until recent years, while political dailies were experiencing a steady decline. Local newspapers have monopoly positions on the county level, although not without problems, according to the Hungarian Publishers’ Association.

VAT tax on newspapers and magazines is 15 percent, making it one of the highest in Europe. In terms of circulation, the most popular national newspaper is Metropol. Owned by the Swedish Modern Times Group, the Budapest-edition of Metro was launched in 1998 with 160,000 copies. Circulation soon went up, and in 2000 the paper went national, having its free copies distributed not only in Budapest but also in major cities across the country. After a year of name change, renewal, and struggling with the financial crisis, in 2009 Metropol had around 250,000 free copies distributed daily in Hungary.

Among political dailies, Ringier-owned Népszabadság managed to preserve its market leader position. However, circulation has fallen from 150,000 in 2005 to only 90,000 per day in 2009. The second largest quality daily, Magyar Nemzet, has a circulation of around 51,000, compared to 73,000 per day 4 years ago. Magyar Nemzet is Hungarian-owned, its editor-in-chief is also the owner of the newspaper. Ringier also owns the largest tabloid in Hungary: Blikk has a little over 200,000 copies a day. Hungary's only daily sport paper, Nemzeti Sport, is also Ringier-owned, with a daily circulation of 76,000.

Another publisher dominating the Hungarian market is Sanoma Budapest, mainly focused on magazine publishing. Sanoma owns the top-3 circulated weekly magazines in Hungary: family magazine Nők Lapja has 258,000 copies, economic magazine Figyelő has nearly 16,000, the weekly TV-guide SZRTV has 204,000 copies circulated weekly.

According to a research completed in December 2009, 58 percent of Hungarians aged over 18 are interested in the economic and political life of the country. 29 percent try and keep up-to-date also in these topics, 12 percent read dailies, 30 percent check at least one news portal every day.

The radio scene has changed a lot between 2007 and 2009. Currently there are three national public service stations (MR1-Kossuth, MR2-Petőfi, MR3-Bartók), and two major national commercial stations, Neo FM and Class FM. Competition in radio markets has been, and still is severe. National radios compete for audiences with numerous local stations, ranging from commercial to public service, non-profit and community radios. Age is a characteristic division line in radio audiences, with people under 49 preferring to listen to commercial stations and people over 50 more often listening to public stations.

The radio scene has been quite eventful in the past few years. First, the national public service radio divided its programming in order to create  thematic radio channels: MR1 became the news radio, while MR2 became an all-music entertainment radio station. This division sparkled a debate about whether playing music can count as public service, with the debate yet unsolved, the radio channels operate regardless.

On 29 October, 2009, ORTT (National Radio and Television Committee) announced that the tender for the two main commercial frequencies was won by two Hungarian consortium companies - this way, from 18 November FM1 Zrt.-owned Neo FM replaced the US company Emmis Broadcasting's Sláger rádió, while Advent International's Danubius rádió was replaced by Advenio Zrt.-owned Class FM. The change has been something umprecedented in Hungary's history, as in the last 12 years, Danubius and Sláger managed to hold on to their frequencies. The events resulted in uncertainty in the radio market, as data is not yet available on the number of listeners of the two new radio stations. 

Until recently, the market shares of the two major national commercial radios has been about the same, with both Danubius and Sláger listened to by about 25 percent of 15+ audiences. Competition for audiences and advertising revenue among radios can be extremely strong, especially in a crowded market like Budapest, with over 30 local and regional radio stations.

Hungarians are avid television watchers: 98 percent of Hungarian households have television. According to a 2006 poll, three out of 10 Hungarians claim their lives would not be complete without television. The average time people spend watching television has been growing steadily since the 1990s, and by 2004 people on average spent over 33 hours per week in front of the screen.

Before the collapse of communism, commercial broadcasting did not exist, and the state-controlled Magyar Televízió (MTV - Hungarian Television) enjoyed a monopoly. A decisive step in transforming MTV from a state-controlled monolith to a public service channel was the 1996 Media Law, which opened the way for creating a dual broadcasting system, modelled after Western European traditions. Currently there are three terrestrial television channels: MTV, the public service channel; TV2, whose majority owner is Scandinavian Broadcasting System (SBS); and RTL Klub which is owned by a consortium of CLT, Bertelsmann, Pearson, and the telecom company T-com. The two terrestrial commercial channels, RTL Klub and TV2 have come to dominate the television scene since their 1997 launching.

The television market is multi-channel, fragmentation of audiences is occurring. Public broadcaster MTV is threatened by the loss of its audience, bankruptcy and political pressure. The situation of MTV is characterized by recurring threats of bankruptcy and political pressure, as each government so far has treated the channel as an important terrain of extending its political influence. The 2002 modification of the Media Law, which harmonised Hungarian legislation with EU television directives, failed to effect changes in this area because the modifications hardly concerned public service broadcasting.

Hungary has had a notable cinema industry since the beginning of the 20th century. Hungarians have impacted the world of motion pictures from both inside and outside the country’s borders. Directors like Academy Award winner István Szabó, Béla Tarr or Miklós Jancsó typically work from inside Hungary.

Other notable Hungarians in the cinematic world include William Fox, who founded Fox Studios; Alexander Korda, who playing a leading role in start of Britain's film industry; and Adolph Zukor, who founded Paramount Pictures.

Archetypical Hungarian films include Merry-Go-Round, Mephisto, and Control. The director of the latter, Nimrod Antal, has also recently become famous. His titles include Vacancy (2007), Armored (2009) and Predators (2010).

Hungary is a popular set for Hollywood productions: Raleigh Studios Budapest as well as Korda Studios provide possibilities for foreign productions.

In Hungary mobile phones are extremely popular: for 10 million Hungarians, there are almost 12 million subscriptions to mobile services, a number that has still been increasing throughout the past few years. The market is divided between 3 companies: Vodafone has about 22 percent, Hungarian company Pannon has 34 percent of the subscribers, while T-Mobile is the largest with 44 percent.

Regarding Internet use, the country still ranks slightly below the EU average: according to GKIeNET's research in 2008, 52 percent of the over-18 population in Hungary is digitally literate. 40 percent use the Internet at least once a week, these numbers have been steadily rising. Half of those who use the Internet have joined in the last two years, while 42 percent has been surfing the web for 3/5 years now.  

Offline media have established online versions. Most of Hungary’s newspapers, weeklies and magazines have online editions, and almost all Hungarian radios can also be listened to online. In addition to the content of the print editions, newspaper websites also offer services like discussion forums or newspaper archives, but the content of the sites is not significantly different from the print version. There are some exceptions to this trend, however, eg the economic weekly Figyelő launching FigyelőNet, a daily version of the publication that also offers additional news content and services.

Of the Internet-only portals that offer news and other services, two major ones emerged as market leaders within the segment. One is Origo, owned by the T-Group and being the market leader, the other, Index is owned by Hungarian entrepreneurs and enjoys the benefits of having been the first such initiative. In early 2010, Origo has had an average of 1.4 million daily visitors, while Index received 950,000 unique visitors daily. Both sites have been rapidly growing, increasing the number of services they provide: next to the news portals themselves, the companies own or are related to community sites, mail systems, blogging solutions, video- and photo-sharing tools etc.

Community sites have been increasingly popular: Hungary's own network, iwiw has a total number of around 4 million users, the second largest is myvip.com, with 2.7 million. Facebook is gaining popularity rapidly, the estimated number of Hungarians connected is 550,000 and growing.

Digital television is in an experimental phase. Full switchover is to be completed by 2011 in sync with EU efforts. A 2005 government decree outlines broadly the frame of digital switchover, but making the necessary changes in the media law is hindered by political disagreement. The terrestrial commercial television channels are also dragging their feet about digital services.

As current market leaders, it would not be in their best interest to switch to digital where smaller channels can better compete with them for viewers. In 2005, TV2 and RTL Klub lobbied the government and the media regulatory authorities successfully for a 5-year renewal of their terrestrial license a year before it expired. After a number of debates an agreement, however, was reached, and from May 2009 Duna Tv, m1 and m2 (both channels of the Hungarian Television) are available in HD, while RTL Klub and TV2 are available in SD format. The digital coverage grew from 55 percent to 88 percent nationwide in December 2009, with a 95 percent coverage expected by the end of 2010.

Online media

The oldest, and previously monopoly, national news agency, Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI) continues to dominate the market of news agencies. It is a state-owned company, managed by a board of trustees which is set up from delegates of the political parties in Parliament.

Other, alternative news agency services are also available, examples include Havaria Press and Független Hírügynökség. There is also a number of specialised news agencies like EduPress and Espresso, focusing on higher education, MediPress on health and medicine, and C-Press, a small, non-profit news agency dedicated to covering the issues of the Roma minority.

The main professional organisation for journalists is MÚOSZ, the national association of journalists. Other, smaller associations were founded as alternatives to MÚOSZ by Catholic journalists (MAKÚSZ) and conservative journalists (MÚK), as well as sports reporters (MSÚSZ).

Newpaper publishers, including proprietors and employers, form the Association of Hungarian Newspaper Publishers (MLE). Online media set up the Association of Hungarian Content Providers (MTE), a body for self-regulation in 2001. DUE (Youth Press Hungary), is a platform for students of journalism offering courses, legal assistance and learning tools for its members.

While traditional media products dominate the Hungarian landscape, some news blogs have emerged; the Index-owned blog.hu network is particularly popular.

Most of these blogs are maintained by professional journalists. They have cater to niche audiences interested in topics like ice hockey (Jegkorong.blog.hu), marketing and media (Szivlapat.blog.hu) and Internet technology (Webisztan.blog.hu).

Podcasting is not particularly popular; most of the professional podcasts are produced by radio experts, such as Kultúrbomba, the official cultural podcast of MR2,, or Budacast, a cultural guide and Hungary’s only English-language podcast.

Legal guarantees are in place for the freedom of speech, expression, and the press. Declarations of freedom of the press are included in the Constitution, the 1986 Press Law, and the 1996 Media Law. Freedom of the press includes the freedom to launch media outlets, editorial freedom, and the prohibition of censorship. Freedom of expression is limited by restrictions on the dissemination of harmful content. Hate speech is regulated in the Penal Code, and the Media Law includes passages about it, thus the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT) can sanction it.

In 2005, parliament passed a law on electronic freedom of information, which obliges government bodies and organisations to make relevant information about their work, including the outcomes of legislative and judicial procedures, publicly accessible on the Internet.

The press and online media do not have separate supervisory organizations. If someone has a complaint against what was published in the press, the person can take the case to court, citing relevant legislation (libel, slander, etc.).

Broadcasting content and ownership in electronic media are regulated by the media law and the main supervisory body overseeing the industry is ORTT (National Radio and Television Committee). It allocates frequencies and supervises the observation of the media law, including the amount of time taken up by advertising, or the appropriateness of the content of programmes. It also has a commission for dealing with complaints from viewers. The supervisory body has the authority to fine broadcasters, or even to suspend broadcasting.

The members of ORTT are selected from nominees of the parliamentary parties; its president is jointly nominated by the president and the prime minister of Hungary. The Board reports to parliament and its members cannot be called back. The Media Law also imposes restrictions on ownership, but only for audiovisual media, not the press.

Content and ownership in electronic media are regulated by the media law. The main supervisory body overseeing the industry is ORTT, the National Radio and Television Committee. It allocates frequencies and supervises observation of the media law, including the amount of time allocated for advertising and appropriateness of the content of programmes. It also has a commission for dealing with complaints from viewers. The supervisory body has the authority to fine broadcasters or to suspend broadcasting.

Members of ORTT are selected from nominees of the parliamentary parties; its president is jointly nominated by the president and the prime minister of Hungary. The board reports to parliament and its members cannot be called back. The media law also imposes restrictions on ownership, but only for audiovisual media, not the written press.

More than 20 institutions offer at least a BA-level journalistic courses in Hungary, and there are several smaller media schools with 1-2 year courses as well. Communication and journalism has been one of the most popular areas of study for years, each year more than 2000 students start their journalistic studies in higher education.

Most of the students are concentrated at the older, well established university departments of ELTE (Budapest), Debrecen, Pécs and Szeged, but smaller colleges have also gained considerable popularity.

The issue of the independence of public service broadcasting has been a central one in Hungarian media since 1990. Each successive government has applied financial and political pressure on Hungarian Radio and Hungarian Television to secure favourable coverage, which, coupled with weak ethical norms among journalists, has prevented the development of objective, independent news, and current affairs programming.

Partisanship is a norm of commercially operated media outlets, the majority of which have clear left- or right-wing profiles. In the absence of a strong, shared professional ethos among journalists, party political news management tends to drive the agendas and interpretations offered in the media. This contributes to the increasingly pervasive sense of deep divisions and splits in Hungarian society along political lines.

ORTT, the supervisory body of the Hungarian media has been also thoroughly criticised, with opinions of political deals behind certain decisions - however, until the members of the committee are selected by the parties, this problem will not likely to be solved.

With the written press getting weaker, the space is filled by television and, recently, online media - although television still is overwhelmingly the most popular form of media in Hungary, online news portals have gained a considerable amount of popularity and trust.

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  • Balázs-Szayly-Szilágyi (2005) Médiaismeret. DUE, Budapest.
  • Bedécs, László (2004): A magyar média szerkezete, önállósága, államhoz való viszonya. Nyíregyháza: NYF.
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Beke Dániel
Editor
Neo FM
H-1023, Csévy utca 7/b., Budapest, Hungary
Tel: +36 70 231 97 07
Email: beke.daniel@neofm.hu