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Interview with Robert Šveb, Director General of HRT

23 June 2022
Interview with Robert Šveb, Director General of HRT
Robert Sveb, Director General of HRT

As HRT prepares to host the EBU General Assembly in Dubrovnik, Robert Šveb, Director General of HRT, speaks to Radka Betcheva, EBU Head of Member Relations CEE.

What is your vision and ambition for HRT eight months after taking the helm? You have said you want to make it the most credible media in your part of Europe.

Although I know HRT well, there is obviously a different perspective when you look at an organization from the outside compared to when you take the responsibility to lead it. Over the past months I’ve spoken to nearly all of our employees and have learnt more than I knew before. I believe the biggest value we have as public service media (PSM) is our people. Although the employee structure at HRT is relatively old and our biggest task is to bring young talent on board, I believe that we can build the most credible media in our region because we have a legacy, the know-how and the determination to work for the public who funds us.

How do you engage HRT staff to get behind your vision?

The first task was to establish my team, with the Board of Directors. HRT is organized into four directorates: programming, production, technology and corporate affairs. I am very happy with my colleagues on the Board who are strong professionals and communicators. I’m also happy that three of them are women. I push everybody to communicate as much as possible with staff and to cascade this effort to middle management and to all employees.

I have an open-door policy, with Wednesdays booked for meetings with employees. During the last eight months my Wednesdays have been consistently full, and I feel people welcome the new opportunity to engage directly with the DG, sometimes for the first time. It works both ways as it’s also valuable for me to hear diverse voices. HRT is a complex organization with about 3000 people spread over Croatia and embracing different skills and working environments. We operate four national TV channels, 12 radio channels, a range of online services and have a lot of obligations, including the requirement to broadcast religious and sports events and work with independent production companies. Communication is key for such a complex organization, to bring everyone together as a team. This is already starting to happen and I am sure it will accelerate. Our ambition is to bring 200-300 young people on board over the next few years and this will be a game changer.

What are your plans in news, where the public expects to see changes?

News is definitely our ID card for the public. Wherever I speak, whether in Parliament, to the programme council, the supervisory board or the press, I am asked what is going to happen with our news programmes.

We have already started to introduce changes, including evaluating transforming HRT4, our specialized news TV channel, into rolling news. I believe that the organization of our news department is old-fashioned and am working with editors and producers on a reorganization that will look at shifts, work positions, and the skillsets need to adjust to continued rolling news that makes it story-centric and not bulletin-centric. This is what we definitely have to change. And we will do it, hopefully before the end of the year.

In terms of content, I believe we are too focused on Croatia and need to broaden the topics we cover to what’s happening in the world, in Europe, and in our region. Our region is very important for us and I want to open it up, also considering that HRT is still very viewed in neighbouring countries. Their media quote us often, maybe even more so than in Croatia. 

People turn to HRT in times of crisis, making our relevance clear to everyone. During COVID, we were heavily involved in informing the public about the pandemic as well as the two catastrophic earthquakes that hit Croatia. Now, we have a new crisis with the war in Ukraine.

In more peaceful times we are not perceived as so relevant, which is why we have to change. We have to start discussing real issues like the fourth industrial revolution, where and how our children will work, the refugee crisis, and of course the climate crisis, which may be the biggest topic of all.

Fake news and misinformation are also big issues that threaten democratic processes and values that shape public policies and pretty much everything – health, science, education, finance. I think that our biggest goal is to re-establish and strengthen responsible and reliable media. PSM are needed today more than ever before.

What are your views on the independence of HRT?

There are always questions about independence. HRT is definitely independent by law and the legislative framework. However, independence is not only about politics. There are a lot of other interest groups that would like to influence HRT because we are the biggest and the most important media and cultural institution in Croatia, financing music and film production as well as the independent sector. We finance all the independent media outlets through the regulator, whose budget comes from HRT. All these players are interested in influencing HRT. We are funded through the licence fee. Each household pays HRT 80 Kunas per month (about EUR 10.40). For content production and for employees we can only use less than EUR 5. Everything else is directed to investing in the creative industry or other expenditures or to paying taxes to the government.

How are you boosting your editorial independence?

I am boosting it in a way which is clearly stipulated by law. According to the law on HRT, the general manager takes full editorial responsibility. Other media laws stipulate that the editors-in-chief are responsible. My responsibility as DG of HRT is to protect our editorial independence. I fully stand behind my journalists and editors and will take responsibility for decisions they take.

What are the challenges for HRT in covering the war in Ukraine?

We have been extensively covering the war in Ukraine, from early morning to late night, and not without challenges. We have a minimum of two crews in Ukraine. At the beginning of the war, we had crews based in Lviv and sent crews to Poland, Slovakia, Moldova to cover stories from there. We are also reporting on Ukrainian refugees in Croatia. We want to bring Croatian citizens as close as possible to what’s happening. Croatians are very sensitive to this tragedy because we still have fresh wounds from our Croatian war for independence and we know how terrible it is. Croatian people are really keen to provide help, as much as they can.

We have also reported human stories about Ukrainian children coming to Croatia. There was recently a touching story about Ukrainian women coming to one of our islands with their children. When the children started going to the local school they had difficulties with the language the first couple of days, but by the end of the first week were talking and playing in Croatian! The Ukrainian and Croatian languages are quite close. These are Slavic languages making it relatively easy for a Ukrainian to learn Croatian.

You believe HRT should switch off terrestrial transmitters in 2030. How is digital transformation going?

I anticipate that over the next 10 to 15 years we will witness the end of traditional broadcasting in favour of streaming. As we are coming to next generations of picture quality with 4K and 8K, DVB is not sufficient anymore. I believe that we are approaching the time in the next decade when everything will go through IP in some form or shape and through 5G, 6G, 7G, 8G networks.

This means that we have to devise a completely different strategy for content production and we need to attract younger audiences. Digital transformation is not only about how we use digital technology but also about the way we think and strategize about content and our people.

Another aspect of digital transformation is more efficient business processes. To be honest, at HRT I sometimes find processes quite analogue in thinking, despite digital technologies. It’s a challenge for us to implement more digitalized work processes and mindsets.

What about the corporate culture? Is it suited for such a dramatic change?

In my experience, the biggest challenge for any organization is to change its culture. Technology today can do so much but having creative and curious workers open to constant learning and acquiring new skills is the greatest value. At HRT, we currently have a relatively old employee structure, as I have already mentioned, and the acquisition of young talent is a strategic task.

The old structure of employees generates a certain type of corporate culture which is driven by tradition. This is a complex media house, which is by nature somehow against change. However, I am sure that, all together, we will work out the corporate culture and make it more suitable for adopting new skills, more open to constant learning and ready for frequent changes. We have to embrace that, in today’s world, what you learned yesterday may not be relevant for tomorrow. We have to unlearn and learn again.

How do you handle the prioritization of digital services over radio and TV?

Just as our corporate culture is traditionally focused on linear radio and TV, the entire planning process is also structured in a linear way. We also have obligations stemming from our contract with the government for the public remit, which we have to deliver in exchange for the funding we receive from the public.

This means that we have to deliver a certain amount of programmes including Croatian dramas, Croatian music and certain types of programmes for our four linear channels. We plan production accordingly.

Our current approach to digital is that what we produce on our linear channels is published on digital. We do not produce especially for digital platforms and only for digital platforms. De facto this is a ‘digital second’ strategy since we transmit first on our linear channels and then we put it on our OTT platform, like for drama series.

We are beginning to change this, since we have our own digital platform and will start to implement a ‘digital first’ approach. This means we plan for drama production and once the production is done, we’ll publish episodes first on our OTT platform and then go for linear. I hope that we’ll introduce this at the end of the year.

You have inherited a heavy burden of court cases with HRT employees and other media professionals. According to the newspaper National HRT was named the biggest European addict to SLAPP lawsuits against HRT’s own journalists. Is this now resolved and what are your plans?

This is pretty much resolved.  When I took office, I withdrew all SLAPP cases. What the media is saying is not entirely true because when I came to HRT there were only three lawsuits against HRT journalists. I withdraw all of them. We still have one with the former Chair of the Croatian Journalistic Union (HND) Hrvoje Zovko, but the case is more complex since there are multiple court cases in this case and I let the Legal department deal with this.

There were also other HR cases, which were blows to HRT’s image. How are you rebuilding the trust and the image of HRT? How are you handling these controversial cases? This is something which happened before you came to HRT.

It is never easy to recover your reputation when something bad happens. Indeed, we had cases which have badly influenced the image of HRT, but they were the exception not the norm. When something goes public it looks like all HRT and all employees are to blame, but this is not the case. These were unique cases with a couple of people. I have pushed and we have initiated the introduction of new regulatory guidelines for all kinds of harassment on the job and how to deal with it. There will be zero tolerance for any type of harassment and such cases will not go without punishment. We are in communication with the government’s office for human rights on this. Our employment law also needs to be updated. We can’t do everything we would like to save our employees at work, but we are doing our best to take a step forward.

The war in Ukraine has come just after COVID and places a lot of economic pressure on our economies and on our public service media. How should we deal with this pressure?

All prices have gone up – not only in Croatia, but all around the world. Due to increased prices of fuel and energy our expenses have gone through the roof and we now have to make a financial analysis of the consequences. Our electricity bill is over 100% more expensive than it was last year. The overall cost of electricity for HRT is enormous. We are also a company on the road, with crews driving around Croatia reporting for radio and TV and facing the rising cost of fuel. The pressure on the business side is growing and it’s going to be a big challenge for us in the coming period. Next year will be difficult.

We will have to find a way to make savings. I do not believe that we will be able to increase our income. And yet, the public expects HRT to provide good content, especially in sport. Croatians are crazy about football. We always have a big fight over how much we have to pay for the sports rights which have gone sky high. Fortunately, this year we will cover the World Cup in Qatar and we managed to acquire the rights for the Euro Championships in 2024 and 2028. It is a challenge to balance the resources you have at your disposal with expectations from the audience.

What should we as the EBU and all of us as PSM do?

Our room to manoeuvre is quite limited as long as there is a commercial value in sports where telecom players and media giants make commercial income on selling content. However, there is always a way through innovation and cooperation. If sport is limited to pay TV it’s not ideal for the sport itself. For sports it’s good to have free-to-air sport to give it maximum exposure. We will have to talk about this and have already scheduled meetings with regional members at the General Assembly in Dubrovnik to see how we can act together and take an innovative regional approach with the EBU on sports rights.

As a leader, what is your approach to the huge competition in media?

We all know that the media landscape has dramatically changed. Over and above fragmentation in terms of volume of TV and radio channels, there is competition from the global technology giants who are gatekeepers and global content giants, like Netflix, HBO, Disney+, which are all available in Croatia and take away audiences.

The telecom industry is now competing with triple play that includes the internet, mobile phones and video, representing additional competition. It’s a noticeable movement in this region that telcos are starting to invest in content production. This will also take viewers from us.

Hyperproduction does not guarantee quality. On the contrary, there is a production of everything, but the quality is not sufficient. This is where we come into the game. We can be distinctive through quality, including professional journalism, trusted sources of information, education. The original BBC concept to inform, educate, and entertain is still relevant and lives on, in my opinion. Whatever we do has to deliver premium quality, and this is the only way how we can keep moving with our mission and how we can stay relevant to the public. If we simply chase the commercial sector, then we will not deliver what we have to deliver.

HRT is hosting the EBU General Assembly in Dubrovnik. How do you see the impact on HRT, and on society?

My team and I are really excited to host the EBU General Assembly and look forward to welcoming everybody in Dubrovnik. We have been practicing social distancing for way too long! We look forward to having a high quality meeting and productive discussions on the future of PSM as well as networking in iconic Dubrovnik. The HRT team has been preparing for this very important event and I am sure it will be great and I look forward to being your host.

Relevant links and documents


Radka Betcheva

Head of Member Relations Central and Eastern Europe