Saturday, March 25, 2006

The broadcast market in Albania is somewhat better than in Montenegro.

Better is a relative term and has to be explained. First, Albania is a much larger country; Tirana alone has more than a million people versus the 670,000 in all of Albania. Poverty or more importantly, income extremes among the population, are issues in both countries. Both countries have more TV stations that they need but on a per person basis, “station density” is lower in Albania than in Montenegro. Second, program production looks better in Albania. There are some impressive locally produced shows; I would say the programs are better than anything done by local stations in the U.S., but local newscasts are about all U.S. stations do. There is little local program production anymore. Vizion Plus runs a knock-off of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” called “Quiz Plus” that airs on Wednesday and Friday nights. Their kids’ quiz show called, “Tales from the King” features questions about Albania’s history and pop culture and ends with a contestant being named king/queen of the Albanian terrority. Other local shows included a version of “Big Brother” called “Magic Eyes” and an “American Idol” show called “Friday Night Fever.” These are just a few of the locally produced programs on one station.

For a look at Vizion Plus, go to:

Why do they produce these shows in Albania? Because the audience wants programming that’s produced in their language. International programming is often subtitled, which isn’t as much fun to watch—especially if the translations aren’t very accurate. Many Albanians understand English, Italian and Spanish, thanks to entertainment programming. But local programs are almost always more popular. (One of the exceptions of this rule are the many telenovelas--soap operas from Spain, Mexico or South America--that air in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. They are subtitled. Because of Italy’s influence in Albania and Montenegro, many people speak or understand Italian and have gradually added Spanish to their language menu.)

Why don’t American stations produce local entertainment programming? Cost and ad revenue are primary reasons. To produce the sort of high production value programming most U.S. viewers demand, would result in programs that would lose money for the stations. You simply can’t price the ads high enough to make enough money to pay the expenses. Most of the Albanian stations have been learning this painful lesson also.

At one time stations jumped into programming ideas without considering how much ad revenue was available to support the program. That fact, combined with an excessive number of stations, has led nearly all stations to be unprofitable. This is generally true in Albania and Montenegro. Another factor of course is the limited advertising market.

(Side note: I’m watching “Inside Africa” on CNN as I work on this entry. What’s that? You’ve never heard of “Inside Africa”? It’s one of many great public affairs shows that Americans never get to see because it only airs on CNN International.)

The star news anchor at Vizion Plus is Sonila Meco. Vizion Plus hired her away from Top Channel, a competitor. It has been a good move for Vizion Plus. In a survey of about 505 respondents, she was the favorite news anchor of 39% of the respondents. The number two person was Ilva Tare, at 20%. She’s the former Vizion Plus anchor, now working for a competitor. I'd like to do a similar research project for a station in Montenegro.

Here’s are a couple of street shots from Tirana. Road expansion has been going on for more than a year throughout the city. It’s not uncommon to have trenches cut across streets or sidewalks, and there are few barriers or barricades to restrict the flow of traffic. One thing I admire about many of the cities I’ve visited in Montenegro, Serbia and Albania is the clear standard of common sense and personal responsibility that’s exists. Keep your eyes open, watch where you’re going and be responsible so that you don’t fall into a hole. And if you do fall, it’s your fault. To the left you see “Mr. Chicken,” my favorite fast food place in Tirana. They sell a sandwich containing chicken, fried potatoes, cucumber slices and plain yogurt, with a pita bread holding everything. It’s a little like a chicken fajita. The sidewalk in front of Mr. Chicken has almost been finished. I'll try to get an after shot... To the left of the young men in the photo is a long trench, about two feet across, two feet deep and 10 feet long. There are a couple of planks that serve as a "bridge" to cross the trench.


It’s the little things. I’m in Albania for my fourth time in about two years….It’s nice to be back to a city I know reasonably well and feel comfortable visiting. I’m here conducting audience research for Vizion Plus television, a privately-owned and independent television station that covers most of the country. (Albania shares a common land border with Montenegro….essentially to the southeast. Although I flew here from the U.S., I will return to Montenegro by car.) We’re doing a second audience survey of television viewers to determine what the viewers think about the station’s programming and perhaps generate some information that will help in the station’s ad sales efforts.

I’ve seen not only familiar faces at the station but even on the streets. There’s a spot near my hotel where I normally catch a taxi. The same group of drivers occupies the location. My first day, when I was ready to pay the driver who took me to Vizion Plus, I offered him 500 Leke—about $5—which is about right amount a foreigner should pay for the trip. He seemed to want just a little more so I added another 100. He was very pleased. The next morning, he again took me to the station. I handed him 600 Leke—same fare as the day before—but he would only take 500. And, he thanked me before I could thank him.

I walked back from the station to my hotel last night. I remembered the walk taking about 25-30 minutes. Maybe I walked slower….it took about 40 minutes. Oh, electricity shortages are back. I did slow down a little when the power went out and I only had car headlights to light my way for part of the walk. I had planned to leave with enough daylight to see but conversations ran a little long at the station. I don’t worry about being a crime victim when I walk—even in the dark. I worry about stepping into a drain with no cover or a utility access point with a missing cover. I watched a driver in an old Mercedes back his right rear tire straight into a drain, with missing cover. A group of passersby helped lift/push his car out of the hole.

When I was here in November, Albania had been experiencing electricity shortages for nearly three months. It’s hard for me to know exactly who was to blame for the shortages but essentially, after a presidential election, the outgoing party and new party did not communicate well enough to ensure that contracts were signed to guarantee the import of enough electricity. The current shortages are part of an effort by government to make people pay their power bills. Gradually, the electric utility will suspend service to specific customers. Right now, they cut power everywhere to remind people to pay. The good news is that once side of the street may lose power but the other side will keep it. After an hour or two, the roles reverse.

Speaking of a mess: the streets are a mess from rains, heavy traffic and little road maintenance. Potholes fill many major intersections. There are streets that have been widened and repaved and look as good as city streets in the U.S. It’s an interesting contrast….the past, represented by pothole filled streets….the future represented by newly paved streets and sidewalks.

Mr. Chicken, my favorite fast food place, is still in business. Bird flu apparently has not driven off customers. I haven’t been there yet but probably will go there tonight or maybe Sunday for lunch.

When I walk back to the hotel, it’s a reality check as to the strength of the economy and quality of life. I walk by shops that are still in business after two years. I see some that have closed. I get an up-close and personal look at people on the streets and try to judge their emotional state. Most of the taxi drivers here speak very little English. In other places I’ve been, I find taxi drivers to be full of insights about the economy, politics and life. I miss being able to ask questions of the drivers. The walk helps replace that.

It is Saturday afternoon, shortly past four, as I write this. Most station personnel work six days a week but leave by 3 or 4 on Saturday. I think I will leave also. There’s a gelato place I want to visit on the way back to the hotel.

More later tonight, including some photos.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Am traveling again....this time to Albania and then back to Motenenegro. Visit with my family was too short...shortened by a day by the Belgrade challenge.

Had an email from a friend in Montenegro who assures me there is NO need for a visa. So, maybe I am right....just busting my chops. A quick post.....will add more once in Tirana at my favorite hotel...Hotel President.

Thanks to those of you who have kept an eye on the blog. Am on a borrowed computer but will post some interesting comments when I arrive.