CEO Skala: bTV Media Group celebrates 20th anniversary and growing viewer confidence
Next week bTV Media Group will celebrate 20 years since the launch of Bulgaria’s first national commercial TV channel, bTV. Two decades later, the media group remains the country’s leading broadcaster while enjoying growing viewer confidence in the challenging times of the coronavirus crisis, as CEO Florian Skala tells Yako Molhov in this exclusive interview.
Florian, bTV is celebrating its 20th anniversary on June 1st. What have been bTV's greatest achievements so far and what have been the biggest challenges?
bTV opened a new era in Bulgaria’s modern television history back in 2000, and it has since retained its strongest position on the market in terms of viewership, trust, technology and social engagement. This is an outstanding achievement, even more in the last few years in the context of changing TV consumption habits and a surge of fake news. The anniversary also comes amid the biggest challenge in bTV’s history, the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from the hurdles common to all, our responsibility as the primary source of information in the country increased, and the growing confidence in us is the biggest reward today.
What were bTV's results for last three and a half years, since you came on board, in terms of business and ratings and are you happy with the results?
My first priority was to tune our content strategy to the new viewer habits defined by the digital transformation. We focused on high quality productions and strengthened their multiplatform positioning. This paid off in increasing results on all platforms. Also, as a long-time trendsetter on the market we invested even more in technology and launched bTV’s largest-scale project ever – a state-of-the-art integrated high-tech studio, which highlights our news content even more. These steps, combined with innovative sales solutions, led to significant growth in bTV Media Group’s overall business results in recent years.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your operations? What changes were you forced to make in your strategy regarding original productions and scheduling and what are your main priorities now?
We adapted our programming strategy swiftly to protect our team, and to meet the new audience needs. We dedicated more resources to relevant content around the COVID-19 topic, while we applied changes to parts of our entertainment shows. The way we produce local content also changed. Distance between hosts and guests, no live audience, and guests via video systems are just common sense measures applied by responsible broadcasters everywhere. Technology enabled us to stay in a very good shape in this situation, and to be there for our viewers and partners when they need us most.
How has the viewership changed since the start of the coronavirus crisis? What type of content are people watching during these hard times?
We saw a clear rise in the interest in news and current affairs content. A recent *survey showed that over 76% of respondents want to watch special live broadcasts, and 80.0% highly appreciate breaking news on COVID-19. Television is the main source of information for 73.0%, and in this context it is a significant recognition that bTV is the most trusted broadcaster for 58.4% of respondents. These findings are corroborated also by recent people meter and online results. In March, when the state of emergency in the country was announced bTV's news website surged to the top of rankings as **the most visited online source in Bulgaria.
What is the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on your ad revenues? Are you adjusting your production and acquisition budgets and strategy already? Do you expect the situation to normalize and when?
I won’t speculate on how the pandemic will develop over time and how much it will affect the media industry. On every step we need to consider the advertising market environment. As a broadcaster, we are facing much bigger challenges in the mere process of production of original TV content, as compared to other media outlets. Although we are getting back to the regular work routine only slowly and responsibly, we are prepared to relaunch our strong schedule in the fall this year and also in 2021. Our programming strategy is focused on the long-term, tailored to our vision for a sustainable and successful bTV Media Group in the years to come.
What will be your strategy for the fall season in terms of programming?
We will keep our strong focus on news and current affairs shows, and in terms of primetime entertainment we rely on the most successful reality show in bTV’s recent history, The Farm, which is also ***the most memorable TV event for 2019. We will continue with the current and strong season of MasterChef, and of course with our internally produced late night show. We have a rich library of high quality acquired fiction titles as well. In any case, we are ready to adjust our programming strategy to the impact of the pandemic at any time. We want to be relevant, and to meet the needs of our audience and advertising partners in every situation.
In January this year you launched the long-awaited replacement of one of your flagship shows that bTV started with back in the days - Slavi's Show is now replaced by Nikolaos Tsitiridis' Show. What are the results and are you happy with the new show and its host?
With the launch of Nikolaos Tsitiridis’ Show we managed to attract the young Bulgarian audience that had never watched TV in the late fringe before. This was a breakthrough, and well appreciated by the advertising market. The show is highly popular in the digital environment as well. As for the host Nikolaos Tsitiridis, he is the brightest discovery in Bulgarian television in recent years, and I am very pleased with his work and talent. The team is doing great, and even managed to switch quickly to working in a pandemic regime shortly after the show’s launch. I strongly believe in its bright future.
bTV has been heavily relying on Turkish series in primetime for many years now. It was recently announced that you have acquired Romanian drama Vlad which has been a hit for your sister channel PRO TV. Will Vlad air in PT on bTV and have you considered other CME titles as well?
We are planning to air Vlad in primetime and it will complement the Turkish series, which enjoy a huge fan base in Bulgaria, and are among the most watched titles even on our SVOD platform, VOYO. We are constantly reviewing the fiction titles from our sister channels and are open to new additions from the region to our program.
What is bTV's strategy for digital in 2020? Are you happy with VOYO's results and do you plan to increase your digital portfolio, bearing in mind that your main competitor Nova acquired 100% of Bulgaria's leading online company Netinfo?
In the past few years we invested heavily in making bTV’s video content available anytime, and on any device. Our AVoD platform, bTV Plus, generated record-high growth among users this year, with 204% more video views and 209% more unique users vs. three years ago when we started focusing more serious efforts in digital. Now for our primetime hits we are also offering a growing number of digital extensions, exclusive video projects for web, and 360-degree livestreams. As for VOYO, it has a loyal and increasing user base in Bulgaria. We are committed to further exploring the potential of the digital space for the great content we create.
What about your portfolio of cable channels? Will bTV launch new channels in 2020?
While we are always evaluating our channel portfolio, our plans are focused mostly on enriching and improving the content on our linear channels and developing our digital platforms.
2019 saw a major shift in Bulgaria's TV landscape, namely Modern Times Group left the local market and sold Nova to a local player - Advance Media Group owned by the two brothers Kiril and Georgi Domuschiev. How has this affected your business, will you adapt your strategy now that you are competing with a local owner?
bTV’s success is a result of our content strategy, popular and trusted faces, CSR involvement, and a commitment to high quality and innovation in every aspect of our work, as well as of being a reliable and professional partner for the advertising industry. That remains true regardless of who owns our competition.
Nova switched back to GARB for people metrics and now the whole market relies on unified measurement. You commented that the market should audit the current system and think of Total Video measurement as a next step. Do you expect support from the industry? Is it possible that a brand new agency would start measuring the ratings in Bulgaria?
There is no reason why the industry would not support what is in its best interest. We already received initial positive feedback from the market. Indeed, Total Video changed the game for all of us. Video content providers are flourishing in the digital environment. However, multichannel consumption data must be merged and provided as Total Video data in an advertiser and agency friendly way. Together, our industry needs to find the best solution and to request it from GARB or any other local or international audience measurement provider.
CME has also been sold - to Czech investment company PPF Group. How will this change affect bTV in Bulgaria?
What makes a great TV company depends mostly on the work of its team. PPF has said that CME is a well-run organization and they don’t intend to make significant changes to its operations.
*Nationally representative quantitative survey, conducted by *Market Links in the period 27-30 March
**Source: Google Analytics
***Market Links, Spring 2020