How “MEGA Channel”, Greece’s Largest TV-Network Died After 29 Years
It was the country’s first private TV-Station and changed the way Greeks entertained and informed themselves.
Photos: Panayiotis Tzamaros, Gerasimos Domenikos, Andreas Simopoulos / FOS PHOTOS
In 1989, the Greek state’s monopoly over broadcasting stations came to an end. After the decision of the short-lived Tzannetakis government (New Democracy, Coalition of the Left and Progress) to give temporary broadcasting licences to newly-formed non-state initiatives, private television entered the Greek reality. One of these initiatives was called Teletypos and was formed in May 1989 as a joint venture of a handful of prominent businessmen who were already involved in print media. Christos Lambrakis, owner of the Lambrakis Media Group (DOL); oil and shipping magnate Vardis Vardinogiannis; founder of construction company Aktor and publisher Giorgos Bobolas; shipowner and publisher Aristeidis Alafouzos; and the οwner of Eleftherotypia daily Kitsos Tegopoulos were the five shareholders of Teletypos. Each one of them controlled 20% of the company’s shares. This initiative resulted in the first private broadcasting station in Greece, MEGA CHANNEL.
MEGA first went on air in November 1989, only to be followed by ANT1, Star and Skai, collectively forming the landscape of private television in Greece. In 1992, the Mitsotakis government (New Democracy) decided to arbitrarily provide the existing television stations with specific licences that would allow them to legally produce their programmes. However, no contest or auction was organized to decide on who would get a licence or what it would cost. In 1997, the Simitis (PASOK) government announced the organization of an auction for the broadcasting licences, but the auction was never completed, and in 2002, government officials finally declared the 1997 auction fruitless. In 2003, the government brought the issue back to the surface, but, again, no solution was implemented. When Kostas Karamanlis rose to power in 2004, one of his main priorities was to fight against the “pimps” [sic] who controlled public opinion through the media. In 2005, however, the government’s initiative to bring the issue of providing full legality to private broadcasting stations to a close failed once more.
Throughout this period, MEGA was championing their soaring viewership statistics, as they were the preferred television station of the Greek public. Also known as “the big channel”, MEGA was a pioneer in the Greek broadcast media sector. MEGA changed the way Greeks entertained and informed themselves. And while the entertainment was rather innocent, with many successful series and reality shows running on the “big channel,” the same cannot be said for the information the channel spread.
A shady past
Even if PASOK was initially negative towards the establishment of private television stations, the centre-left party quickly built strong relations with the new broadcast media elite. MEGA has historically been a channel favourable to PASOK and its governments. This special power relation has been built, to a great extent, on the ties between Giorgos Bobolas and prominent PASOK politicians. His role as a publisher and media owner gave Bobolas access to the deep political establishment of Greece. Working together with governments, MEGA’s shareholder offered support to the political system through the media. As an exchange, Bobolas’ construction group Ellaktor (Aktor until 1999) would participate in public-private partnerships for major projects. To name a few, the Rio-Antirio bridge, the Olympic Stadium and the Attiki Odos (the main highway of the Attica region) were built by Ellaktor.
The other shareholders also maintained close ties with the political elite. Christos Lambrakis, son of Dimitris Lambrakis, had risen to fame as the most prominent media mogul of Greece. As owner of DOL, Lambrakis was the publisher of newspapers TA NEA and TO VIMA, as well as the magazine Tachidromos. This position helped Lambrakis build bridges with the centres of political power, while his media’s support of PASOK played an important role to Andreas Papandreou’s political career. In the early 1990s, however, the media group’s backing of PASOK came to an end, only to be revived with Kostas Simitis’ rise in the leadership of the social democratic party towards the end of the 20th century.
Bobolas and Lambrakis were the two shareholders of Teletypos that played the most important role in forming MEGA’s identity. Aristeidis Alafouzos left the group early on, while Tegopoulos stayed with a smaller role until his death in 2006. The Vardinogiannis family remained in Teletypos, but they also had their own broadcasting station, Star Channel. Hence, their role in MEGA was rather limited. This left Bobolas and Lambrakis as the main leaders of MEGA Channel.
As a pioneer in, more or less, everything in Greek private television, MEGA led the way in borrowing from the banks. A system that was built on trust between its participants (banks, media moguls and the two main political parties), kept the Greek media business going for a long time. Banks would lend money to media groups and political parties, with little or no collateral in exchange. What guaranteed these loans was the preservation of the powers that be in the political system, the media and the banks. As DOL’s former CEO, Panayotis Psycharis (son of Stavros Psycharis, who succeeded Christos Lambrakis in DOL after the latter’s death in 2009) claimed in 2016 during his interrogation by the Hellenic Parliament’s inquiring committee on the massive borrowing of political parties and the media, he personally guaranteed for the repayment of a loan with “air”, as he was not asked for proper collateral.
In 2006, the US embassy in Athens, in a document obtained by WikiLeaks, was asking “How can all these media outlets operate profitably?” It followed: “They don‘t. They are subsidized by their owners who, while they would welcome any income from media sales, use the media primarily to exercise political and economic influence.” This was the way the Greek media establishment was surviving until the country’s economy started collapsing.
Starting in 2008, the crisis had a big impact on the media sector. The advertising business began to limit its activities and broadcasting stations therefore saw their revenues decrease. MEGA, being the most successful of them, seemed to be managing the situation, producing original programmes and continuing to play its role as one of the main information channels of the Greek people. Its political agenda, however, became clearer as the crisis deepened. The same is true for other television stations too.
A clear example of this phenomenon took place in December 2008, after the assassination of Alexandros Grigoropoulos by police officer Epameinondas Korkoneas. In their reportage of the assassination, MEGA had manipulated a video of the assassination recorded by the phone camera of a citizen from her apartment in Exarcheia. While in the original video the gunshots were heard clearly in a rather silent background, MEGA had added sound from demonstrations to the video. Later on in the crisis, MEGA — along with other private broadcasters — portrayed biased views on how the economic struggles of Greece should be dealt with as part of the station’s newscast.
With the entrance of digital media in the market, Greek traditional media started seeing their public decrease. The media establishment kept on surviving, though, and so did the system that kept them going. By 2015, the debts of the country’s main media groups to banks amounted to over €800 million. From these, €451,5 million were debts of DOL, Pigasos Publishing (Bobolas’ publishing house), Teletypos and IRIS AEBE (printing house collectively owned by DOL and Pigasos Publishing). Teletypos (MEGA) owed around €70,5 million to three banks at the time and its owners were, evidently, bankrupt. The situation was not much better for other broadcasting stations, as the Alafouzos-owned SKAI group (SKAI TV and Kathimerini) owed €105 million, while the Vardinogiannis-owned Star Channel owed €56,5 million.
The media were bankrupt, so were the banks and so was the state. The burden for the survival of all three fell on Greek and European taxpayers. SYRIZA’s rhetoric against the “corrupt triangle” of the media, the political elite and the banks, suggested the party was ready to fight against the establishment to defend the people. This was one of the main reasons of SYRIZA’s rise in political influence, which finally brought them to government in January 2015. One of SYRIZA’s electoral promises was to clash with the “corrupt triangle” through the organization of an auction that would finally impose order in the broadcasting media sector. This, of course, did not come without a price for the governing party that had the media establishment against it from the very beginning. The rivalry between the SYRIZA-Independent Greeks government and the media peaked in July 2015, when the referendum on austerity took place. MEGA was often pointed at by governmental politicians as the corrupt broadcasting station par exellence.
In this context, the parliament passed in February 2016 law no. 4339/2015, also known as the “Pappas law”, as it was initiated by the close aide of Alexis Tsipras, Minister Nikos Pappas. This law ordered for an auction to be held in order to distribute four broadcasting licenses to the highest bidders. Teletypos submitted a file, but it was rejected due to the financial situation of the company. The auction was held in August 2016, with Giannis Alafouzos (SKAI group), Giannis Kalogritsas (whose file was later rejected), the Kyriakou family (ANT1) and Vaggelis Marinakis (shipping magnate and owner of Olympiakos FC) receiving the four licenses. Kalogritsas was later replaced by Ivan Savvidis (Pontic Russian businessman and owner of PAOK FC), who was the fifth highest bidder. After a long political debate, however, the law was considered “unconstitutional” by the Greek supreme administrative court (StE) in October 2017, on the basis that the procedure was not carried out in a politically independent way.
Following the auction of August 2016, MEGA suspended its programme on September 7. Since that day, the station’s 420 employees are under work retention. During this time, MEGA has been showing old successful television series that remind Greeks of the recent past, when the “big channel” was championing Greek TV. The employees kept on running the station, even without an original programme, hoping that their employers will eventually pay their salaries. It was only after 17 months that the employees received an answer to their demands.
Who are the new owners of Teletypos?
In May 2017, Pontic Russian businessman Ivan Savvidis bought 19,63% of Teletypos’ shares for a sum around €5 million from the Bobolas family (Pigasos Publishing). It is said that Savvidis later passed his shares of Teletypos to Cypriot company ELENOVO (which reportedly has ties to a Russian businessman), but there has been no official announcement. In July 2017, Savvidis also bought newspapers To Ethnos, To Ethnos — Sunday edition and Imerisia from the Bobolas family for a sum of €3,58 million. In August 2017, Savvidis’ media company Dimera Media bought broadcasting station E TV, expanding his power in the Greek media sector.
Savvidis, however, is not the only football club owner who holds shares in Teletypos. Vaggelis Marinakis bought DOL for around €23 million through his media company Alter Ego, hence acquiring 22,11% of Teletypos. Along with DOL’s shares of Teletypos, Marinakis took control over DOL’s print media, namely To Vima and TA NEA, as well as the radio stations that belong to the powerful media group. This acquisition made Marinakis one of the most powerful actors in Greece’s changing media landscape.
Today, Teletypos is collectively owned by the Vardinogiannis family (35%), Vaggelis Marinakis (22,11%), Ivan Savvidis (19,63%), Pigasos Publishing (13,09% — pledged) and a number of minor shareholders such as businessman Dimitris Kopelouzos (4,5%). The 420 remaining employees of MEGA hoped that the changes that took place in Teletypos ownership would result in the survival of the broadcasting station, the preservation of their jobs and the reimbursement of the company’s debts to them. However, the developments were far from promising.
When in November 2017 the government’s renewed effort for the organization of an auction for broadcasting licences (which this time would be seven instead of four) was voted in parliament, there was increased interest in the reactions of the new media moguls. MEGA’s 420 employees put their hopes on Teletypos’ shareholders to submit an offer for a licence. It is their unpaid work, after all, that kept the company running without further losses, reducing its debts to the banks.
The deadline day for the submission of bids for the broadcasting licences was January 11. None of MEGA’s shareholders appeared to submit a file at the National Broadcasting Council (NBC), the agency responsible for issuing the licences. Finally, there were only six bidders, each of whom is going to pay €35 million to acquire one of the broadcasting licences — if their files are considered complete. The six bidders were: Giannis Alafouzos (SKAI group), Giannis Vardinogiannis (Star Channel), Dimitris Kontominas (Alpha TV), Minoas Kyriakou (ANT1), Ivan Savvidis (E TV) and Makis Giobazolias (Teleoptiki Elliniki).
The owners of Teletypos had declared that there would be no offer on their part one day before the deadline. Following this announcement, MEGA’s employees went on air the next day (11/1) to answer to Vardinogiannis, Marinakis and Savvidis. Notably, they demanded from them to pay the employees for the months that they have been working without remuneration, as well as their compensations. At the same time, MEGA’s employees called for the government, the Ministry of Labour and the NBC to “claim their responsibilities towards the families of the 420 employees.” Ever since, MEGA’s employees have been demonstrating for weeks in front of MotorOil’s (the oil company owned by the Vardinogiannis family) headquarters, without receiving a response.
What used to be the “big channel” of Greek television now looks like a sad reminder of the past, stuck on number 4 of Greeks’ TV controllers. Rumours circulated for a while regarding MEGA’s future. Some suggested that Teletypos would submit a bid for a thematic broadcasting licence. Others said that Vaggelis Marinakis would pay the employees’ salaries and would reform Teletypos. Finally, some believe that the broadcasting licences law will hit the wall of StE again and will be judged unconstitutional, giving the owners of Teletypos more time to reconsider their decision.
On the 5th of February, the employees’ union announced its decision to go on continuous 24-hour long strikes for an indefinite period of time. This meant that MEGA would no longer play advertisements, virtually halting the station’s financing. Three days later (8/2), the Vardinogiannis family announced their disinvolvement from Teletypos, committing to pay MEGA’s employees their salaries, according to the percentage of the company’s shares that belongs to them (35%). Marinakis’ media group committed to doing the same, while Savvidis’ side (or the company to which the Russian businessman passed the management of his shares of Teletypos) remained silent. In the announcement that the Teletypos board issued on the same day, the company put the blame on the previous owners of MEGA and the NBC, claiming that Vardinogiannis and Marinakis have done all they could to save the broadcasting station. At the same time, they asked for the cancellation of the auction for the broadcasting licences.
On their side, Teletypos’ employees proceeded to demand not only the unpaid salaries, but also the compensations for the abrupt halt of their work. In their announcement, they also called for a meticulous investigation on Teletypos’ finances since 1/1/2016, in order for all the evidence related to their payments to be transparent. Finally, the company’s employees denied Vardinogiannis’ blame game and clarified that the ones responsible for MEGA’s end are Teletypos’ owners and only them.
Who is to blame in this story that sums up Greek history of the past three decades? Is it the shady past of MEGA and the old shareholders of Teletypos who indebted the company leading it to today’s deadlock? Is it the new shareholders that bought shares without being willing to claim their responsibilities? Is it Vardinogiannis? Is it Marinakis or is it Savvidis? Is it the government? In any case, the ones who are not at fault are the 420 employees of MEGA that struggled to keep the station alive during the past 17 months, without receiving anything in return.
On February 27, the final act of the story is expected to be played. According to the revised 4339/2015 law, this is the last day for broadcasting stations that will not participate in the auction process to legally be on air — MEGA being the main one.
This publication has been produced within the partnership with Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso for the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), co-funded by the European Commission. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of media partner AthensLive and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.