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The Georgian media struggles to cope with COVID-19

The traditional Georgian media method of framing issues through a partisan political lens has failed to attract viewers and the media is struggling to find its role in the evolving situation. But a public distaste for party politics and leadership battles during this pandemic is not the only challenge facing media newsrooms. Media content, TV programming structures and income-generating models are all increasingly being tested and strained by COVID-19.

May 7, 2020 - Giorgi Jangiani - Articles and Commentary

TV tower above Tbilisi Photo: Alex Malev (cc) flickr.com

After the first reported case on February 26th, the number of people confirmed to have COVID-19 has gradually begun to rise in Georgia. As of April 15th, 300 cases have been confirmed and 4990 people are being held in quarantine. Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) is expecting the situation “will get worse before it gets better.” The government has already taken strong measures to flatten the curve. It has imposed an overnight curfew, closed public transportation and banned gatherings of more than three people. Most businesses have been moved online, professionals are working from home and children are attending online classes. Under this extraordinary situation, the demand for news media content and TV programmes has drastically increased. However, this growing demand for information is raising concerns about the business models of Georgian media.

The Georgian media struggles to accept COVID-19 as headline news

The COVID-19 outbreak did not find its way to prime time easily in the Georgian media. The first glimmers of public interest came through Georgian entertainment webpages that mocked people outside of the country for wearing unusual face makes and outfits. Considering the fact that Georgia emerged from the H1N1 swine flu in 2010 and the H1N5 chicken flu in 2014 relatively unscathed, the word “epidemic” in early 2020 reports was initially received as an exaggeration. However, the increasing numbers of virus-related deaths and global media attention pushed the Georgian media to begin covering the outbreak more actively. As the media began to increase its coverage, it initially focused intermittently on casualty statistics and rare exclusive footage from the quarantined city of Wuhan. Even after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, TV stations chased exciting exclusives instead of handling the health emergency with the seriousness it deserved. When the first case in the country was confirmed, reporters rushed to the entrance of a Tbilisi hospital to interview a potential virus patient, neglecting their own safety and ignoring the possibility of transmission to get the latest scoop. The National Center for Disease Control later apologized for “some unprepared conditions,” implying that they allowed journalists to talk to a sick patient before he was dragged back into the hospital by nurses.

In addition to the initial lack of serious attention given to COVID-19, the Georgian media struggled to turn away from leading political news and focus on the public health emergency. On March 8th, just days before a state of emergency was announced in Georgia, the ruling Georgian Dream party and the united opposition reached an agreement on a system for the upcoming parliamentary elections in October. This was a major political breakthrough that gained attention from both the international media and diplomats stationed in the country. The media, keen to keep viewers’ attention, continued to push the political action into their prime time coverage. However, less than a week later, schools and universities were shut and international flights severely limited, forcing the media to pivot their focus. While coverage of the pandemic is now taking precedence, the Georgian media is clearly still trying to find its role in the outbreak. In the early weeks there was an attempt to frame the chaos surrounding the virus as a “leadership battle” in the government and as part of political games between parties. Next, the media chose to convey the response to the pandemic as a battle between the Georgian Orthodox Church and government for social influence. TV stations highlighted the church’s refusal to close its doors, despite government warnings and pleas, and framed it as a battle for influence over the Georgian people.

The Georgian media has adopted a clear pattern of pitting issues in the country against two actors, with one of them often being the government. Whether it is the government against the opposition or the government against the church, the media’s traditional framing of opposing actors to increase viewership is not a viable strategy during this unprecedented crisis. Instead, the Georgian media should consider following networks like the BBC, which has figured out ways to educate and inform audiences outside their normal news broadcasts and used their programmes to convey important messages. Timely, accurate, high-profile reporting will help convey to citizens the danger of the virus and mitigate its spread. Partisan politics and framing the virus as a battle of the church against the government will not.

Covid-19 endangers the structure of TV programming

News media has always been a fast-paced environment, both in Georgia and other countries. The desire to gain exclusive news and increase viewership is a core tenet of modern-day journalism. However, the global crisis is forcing the media to re-evaluate its working process. New guidelines from media agencies, such as the BBC, have stated that location work for all non-news programming should be avoided at this time: “Most of production activities should be restricted to broadcast critical or COVID related programmes only, provided social distancing and good hygiene controls are in place.” Despite these kinds of decisions in other countries, media operation decisions in Georgia are still being made by executive producers. Currently, their work continues in line with their own individual precautionary measures and the limited guidance provided by the National Center for Disease Control. The guidance advises that contact, especially with vulnerable groups, should be avoided or in special cases should be conducted from a safe distance. It is clear that until the first COVID-19 cases appear among journalists, their actions will not be strictly regulated and enforced by medical safety agencies. 

Thus far, not much has changed for TV stations in Georgia. Most talk shows are continuing and there is almost constant news programming. However, TV stations will soon use up their backlog of original scripted series and recorded popular entertainment. It is easy to anticipate that the shooting of the most popular late night comedy shows will be cancelled unless they manage to change their format, like the Daily “Distancing Show” or Jimmy Kimmel Live in the United States. But the outbreak may have even larger structural effects.In the absence of new live sports events, some programming will be naturally cancelled. Airing additional episodes of soap operas and old Georgian movies, which have already started, will only provide a temporary solution. New video content will soon be desperately needed, and the Georgian media companies will need to find innovate ways to meet the demand.

Advertisement revenue is at stake

Most Georgians are now effectively shut-in, with some working from home and others unemployed. While many already watch TV or stream content, the potential audience for video entertainment is about to skyrocket. The first task for TV stations is figuring out how to adjust their programming to match a dramatically different viewing landscape. The demand for news programmes has already risen ten per cent according to Tri Media Intelligence. A recent report by Nielson observed more dramatic changes in demand for TV content in South Korea and Italy as virus cases spiked. Georgia will most likely see similar trends as the number of cases increase and the government tightens restrictions. But having a larger than usual audience requires more unique video content and ways to transform it into higher revenue. Unfortunately, increasing viewership may no longer translate into higher advertisement revenue in coming months.

Advertising was traditionally the biggest source of income for the Georgian media. However, ad revenue has already experienced a large decrease in recent years, according to the Center for Media Data and Society’s latest report. With businesses scaling back workers and analysts warning of a global recession, a significant number of companies are expected to cancel their TV advertising campaigns. In the absence of almost every major sporting event and musical live shows, many TV advertisement selling portfolios will lose their attraction. Consequently, gambling businesses, the highest paying customers in the Georgian ads market, are expecting to limit their publicity campaigns. Furthermore, the cancelling of all tourist and leisure activities for at least two months will drastically shrink the advertising market. According to the Brafton marketing company, travel was the sixth biggest advertising sector worldwide in 2019, amounting to 5.6 billion dollars of revenue.

In the short term, COVID-19’s influence on the Georgian media and TV business seems to be providing positive growth, creating larger audiences at home with no alternative social activities. Consumers will require more video content to help fight boredom. Nielsen recently released a study suggesting that video consumption could soar as much as 60 per cent in the coming months. Nevertheless, an increased number of viewers does not automatically convert into greater income. It’s becoming clear that the worldwide economy is crashing into a major recession. The biggest players in Georgia, such as Rustavi 2 and Imedi TV soon will be forced to find a replacement for advertisement revenue derived from the gambling and tourism sectors. For small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) in regional media, the 2020 parliamentary election may be one of the few boosts for ad revenue, as it was during the 2018 presidential election. However, the exact impact of the virus on the finances of media companies remains to be seen. The Georgian media regulator (GNCC) has still not published 2020’s first three-month report on media revenue derived from advertisements, nor has it published any crisis management strategy or guidelines on how it will assist the SME’s operations during the crisis.

The Georgia media is still struggling to adapt to the changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Continuing their traditional politicization of the outbreak has failed to attract more viewers. The need for understanding the danger of the virus and how to contain its spread through measures such as social distancing requires more educational – not political – objectives for the media. The National Center for Disease Control and the Georgian media regulator, GNCC, both need to take an active role in providing guidance and assistance as media companies struggle to find their role. The virus has already begun to constrain new television content and TV stations will soon be forced to fill the gap created in the absence of mega entertainment shows and sporting events. Many shows will be forced to change their format or be temporarily cancelled. Under these pressures, it is expected that the advertising market will shrink. While these measures, much like the state of emergency, may seem temporary, failing to act as a responsible arbiter of information, or make up for lost revenue, could have a lasting effect on the Georgian media market.

Giorgi Jangiani is an Affiliated Media Researcher at the Center for Media, Data and Society in Budapest, Hungary. His main areas of expertise are the South Caucasus regional media, disinformation and strategic communication.

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