Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy: BBC came to us

interview

The new season of “Belsat” features a number of programs produced by the BBC. Among them are crime series, screen adaptations of British literature classics, as well as documentaries. How did Belsat start cooperation with the BBC, what is expected by both sides and what else awaits our audience? Siarhiej Pieliasa spoke with Belsat TV director Agnieszka Romaszewska-Guzy.

– The head of the British government has said that her country will support Belsat in the fight against Russian propaganda in the region. How did our TV channel broadcasting from Poland end up in this strategic partnership and what does it mean for Belarus, the region and Belsat itself?

– I think that this can be a solid case. As you know, for some time the countries of the so-called Free World have not been able to cope with the Kremlin’s information aggression. In a sense, there are not enough tools. In this case, Moscow is working in a very delicate area, which in every democratic country is the foundation of freedom — I mean here freedom of speech. It is very difficult to regulate, forbid, etc. Therefore, it is not easy to react. At the same time, we see the fascination with “pure politics”, which is a populist manipulation on the one hand and an alliance of empires on the other. This decision indicates that they remembered about another important party in this game — societies and their real needs. They remembered that the wonderful world of anti-dignities can be opposed by the world of real virtues, and it can be attractive to people.

– And what does this mean for Belsat?

– This sets great challenges for us, but it is also an assessment of our 10-year work, a recognition of its merit.

– Belsat has been broadcasting the BBC products since September. How did cooperation with such a major partner become possible and what is it based on?

– It was the BBC that turned to us, and not the other way round. Most likely, this is the result of the BBC strategy, aimed at getting the more viewers. If we talk about the countries of the former USSR, they do not use a satellite for the Russian language content, but rather try to create ready-made content for other TV channels.

I think that if they analyzed our region, they came across Belsat, which covers a very large territory with its satellite. Firstly, it is the whole of Belarus, secondly, most of the Baltic countries, thirdly — Ukraine, and part of Russia.

In addition, Belsat is not a new project, which is just beginning its activities. We are quite a big TV channel and we have quite a lot of experience. I think that’s why the BBC decided to turn to us with a proposal for cooperation.

– Why a British TV channel, which has not been engaged in such projects for years, suddenly initiates such a partnership? What is there for the BBC? Or is it, maybe, about the political interests of Great Britain?

– I think this is an interest of British politicians, and it is connected with the Brexit, within the framework of which the UK is to take care of its own affairs outside the European Union. It means, to fend for itself and think through its actions in cooperation with other EU countries, considering that it is no longer part of a larger structure, the European Union.

The eastern policy id one of the elements here, maybe not the most important from the point of view of Britain, but still an important one. It is the policy towards countries placed to the east of the European Union, for example, Belarus. But not only Belarus, it is also valid in relation to Russia and Ukraine.

Great Britain is one of the few states that sees a serious threat in the domination of Russian propaganda, in the sense of an ever growing presence of aggressive anti-Western Kremlin rhetoric. And it is expanding already to the Western Europe: this is the goal set by ‘Russia Today’ television channel. There has just appeared the French mutation of this channel.

In Eastern Europe its presence is very strong, and the British, no doubt, realize that this is a big problem. They understand that this is not some kind of presence of informational nature, existing on its own, and not even some kind of propaganda, to which we have long become used to. This is something else, something far reaching and very significant in the political sense.

The British noticed this and, it seems, they came to the conclusion that it is necessary to solve it in the framework of actions after Brexit. And they decided that Poland could be their partner in this business, in particular Belsat which broadcasts from its territory. I think they were just looking for an organization where something is happening.

There is no mysterious explanation, they were simply looking for a partner who would truly be trustworthy.

– What type of programs did the British offer? Or maybe Belsat also achieved or decided on something during the negotiations?

– We chose several positions that seemed interesting from the list that was presented to us. We hope that the next tranche (if it happens, if the project is successful after all), we will get even newer programs. Because now they are mostly the programs that appeared some time ago. But they are interesting, of very good quality. Among them there are a number of series, including criminal ones, as well as documentary films, but the films about the nature are the best. All these products are of very high quality and if we wanted to buy it, we would simply not have enough money, Belsat would not be able to show it.

The cooperation in which we are involved has several aspects: it’s not only the free programs that we receive, but also the interaction during the creation of our programs. There are also negotiations under way regarding the possible broadcasts of certain BBC materials on Belsat, perhaps we will be going live with studio in London.

– These British programs will be shown on Belsat (at least at first) in Russian. They will be shown not only on Belsat, but also on other TV channels — from Estonia to Ukraine. But the vast majority of our products are in Belarusian. Where does Russian come from in the BBC programs?

– This is the requirement of the BBC, they decided to do it in Russian, and these translations are made for all [TV channels]. Most likely, this is the result of two ideas: one which is right, and another one which is wrong. The right one is to make it affordable for many TV channels and as cheap as possible. They want to translate this, and, having one version, the Russian one, to give it to the Latvian, to Belsat, and to the Ukrainian television.

And the wrong idea is that it is the best way to get all the viewers you can find. And here we are striving, within the frame of this partnership, to convince them that it should not be a dogma. In some situations, this method can help to reach a wider audience, and in others, on the contrary, it can irritate and disappoint the viewers.

It turns out that we are not alone in this conviction, it is the same in Latvia, and especially in Ukraine, they are also trying to convince the British that it should be different. But they have very limited rules of cooperation: either in Russian, or in no way.

We would like to say the following: maybe in some cases it may be in Russian, but, in general, we would like to translate a significant part of the production into Belarusian. We think that this would give a good result: it would not cause the situation where we would have many more viewers using the approach they offer, and much fewer using the one we have now.

Let’s see what will happen to these decisions. So far, I had an impression during my contacts with the Foreign Office, that they are gradually beginning to understand this. At least because we are not the ones who talk about this, but also representatives of other countries.

In our opinion, the Russian language plays an important role in the dissemination of information in former USSR. It is also a kind of “lingua franca”, a common language, and some of the content can be broadcast in Russian. Our job is to show that Russian can be used not only to present ideas of the “Russian world”, but also for absolutely different content. This is very important.

But according to our own point of view, which we adhere to at Belsat, we would like to translate a lot of it into Belarusian. Let’s see if it will work out. But we know that the people of Belarus know both languages ​​equally well, so there are no problems with understanding.

 

– British serials in Belarusian? It would be something new. I can see a clearly articulated idea, which I came across in the methodology paper printed by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). It states that television in our region attracts the attention of new viewers to serious problems through entertainment programs. On the one hand, it can be done in Russian, and on the other — in Belarusian or in other national languages ​​– this is a debatable issue. I understand that Belsat wants to influence this, but in what language?

– This is very important for us. The thorough research of our audience shows that although most of our viewers turn to Belsat primarily for information, it is possible to attract only a narrow circle of people by the information only, even if it is different from that provided by the state media. It is a problem of the “bubble”, in which we are not alone, but with the majority of independent media outlets and which is not so easy to get out of.

One of the reasons for it is the lack of funds. After all, this does not only depend on us, as if we would not want to expand our offer to the audience, or we cannot do this. We are an experienced organization with 10 years of experience. There is simply no money for good, in a broader sense, entertainment products. Therefore, we offer, first of all, what is important for us, the most alternative products, that is, information and journalism. This is very important, but it should coexist with attractive content.

This is obvious for us, but the problem is the extremely serious competition: it’s Russian television, which is made using huge money and which sometimes offers very high quality entertainment programs. We also have to offer something from our side. But we have repeatedly come to the conclusion that the annual budget of Belsat equals the sum spent on several days of the ‘Russia Today’ TV channel activities. And with this money we must make our content as attractive as possible, to intercept the viewer, to show something that will keep them at the screen.

– This is very important for us. The thorough research of our audience shows that although most of our viewers turn to Belsat primarily for information, it is possible to attract only a narrow circle of people by the information only, even if it is different from that provided by the state media. It is a problem of the “bubble”, in which we are not alone, but with the majority of independent media outlets and which is not so easy to get out of.

One of the reasons for it is the lack of funds. After all, this does not only depend on us, as if we would not want to expand our offer to the audience, or we cannot do this. We are an experienced organization with 10 years of experience. There is simply no money for good, in a broader sense, entertainment products. Therefore, we offer, first of all, what is important for us, the most alternative products, that is, information and journalism. This is very important, but it should coexist with attractive content.

This is obvious for us, but the problem is the extremely serious competition: it’s Russian television, which is made using huge money and which sometimes offers very high quality entertainment programs. We also have to offer something from our side. But we have repeatedly come to the conclusion that the annual budget of Belsat equals the sum spent on several days of the ‘Russia Today’ TV channel activities. And with this money we must make our content as attractive as possible, to intercept the viewer, to show something that will keep them at the screen.

The BBC production is of really high quality. It is what catches the eye of the viewer. And we are deeply interested in having this content, not to mention cooperation with such an internationally renowned organization.

– All British standards — both in education and in journalism — are the best there is. And Belsat already has the BBC production. Are there any other forms of cooperation planned? Should we expect the British support in the creation of the new Belsat program?

– We have recently participated in such a competition and won the opportunity of the BBC’s participation in the creation of so far two — periodical and non-periodical — programs. They are financed by the European Endowment for Democracy, using the money of the British. The also offer us their know-how, which is extremely useful.

I personally was very interested in participating in classes where a very respected BBC expert told us how to make our program more interesting, how to make the team more creative. And it will be extremely difficult to implement.

We are still a little bit special as a television channel, we are partisan in a sense. We created it ourselves, using, however, the money of Poland and other states. But we ourselves learned a lot in the process of creating the TV channel. We learned from each other and from other TV channels.

And the fact that we can raise our professional level, using this know-how, is super important for us. Therefore, I hope that the result will not only be the new content of our programs, but, if successful, we will get a chance for a new season, for the new programs, which can get the support of the British, since they are open to proposals. And we are a flexible body, always ready to cooperate.

– After 10 years of existence, Belsat received such a serious partner and ally as the BBC. We can only wish that next year Sherlock Holmes and other characters of the famous British TV series speak Belarusian.

– Of course, this is also our goal. And here I hope for the best.

Interviewed by Siarhiej Pieliasa

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