Gordon Lovitt has an unusual position in that he is an Englishman who is director of programming at one of the Czech Republic’s four main TV channels, the commercial station Prima. A decade ago he held the same post at state broadcaster Czech Television. And before that he was a professional actor; indeed, a visit to Zlín (or Gottwaldov as it was in those communist times) with a student drama group in the 1980s was Gordon Lovitt’s first experience of the country he now calls home.
“There was a theatre exchange, it was when I was still a student – it was something called Greenwich Youth Theatre, or something like that. And because obviously everybody’s left-wing in places like Greenwich they had this kind of partnership with Malá scéna in Zlín.
“Basically a group of young Czechs came to the UK and we showed them everything that was ‘wrong’ in London. They had a great time, and we just had a lovely innocent time in Czechoslovakia.”
In the mid to late 1990s you worked at Czech Television. Now you’re here at a commercial station, Prima. What have you found to be the biggest differences between working for a public service broadcaster and for a commercial station?
“I think one of the nicest things about working for a commercial TV is the fact that it’s quantifiable. Things are clear, whether something is a success or not, and it’s much easier to be able to define it.
“I think one of the tough problems with a public TV, wherever – it’s the same with Český Rozhlas, I’m sure – is defining what’s a success and what’s not. Here it’s very clear – it’s audience and cost effectivity connected with that audience that you receive.
“Another nice thing about Prima is that it’s extremely compact. It is not a large organisation, even compared to TV Nova. We have this kind of system in which we work nearly exclusively with external production companies. So that again it makes it clearer, that division between being a broadcaster and being a producer.
“Whereas at a public TV, especially in the Czech Republic or Romania where I worked in public TV as well, you have these huge studios which you have to fill. So that means that a lot of your decisions are not made on the basis of what is the best show for you, but you basically have to fill the studios that you have and employ the people that are there.
“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful things about working for public TV. It’s absolutely lovely, a lot of the shows that you can do there.”
“I think there’s an advantage and a disadvantage. It’s easier to be objective, because you are quite clearly from outside, you don’t have the same kind specific prejudices to individual people that you might have if you were from the area. And Prague is quite a small pool, so everybody knows each other and being slightly away from that does really help.
“Obviously being a foreigner you don’t know as many things, you don’t have the same kind of tradition that you would if you were a Czech. If you understand the language, I don’t think that’s that big an issue.”
But as a foreigner have you met any resistance in your career here?
“Oh, very much so, yeah. Especially at public TV – I haven’t really found it at commercial TV. But at public TV I think it is that fact that…I think it would happen in the UK as well, it’s nothing to do with being the Czech Republic, but I think whenever there’s a foreigner in a relatively high position in a cultural institution it’s quite clear that you will have some criticism because of that. Whether it’s valid or not.
“What I’ve always tried to do is to say, OK, talk about the work that I am doing, not about the fact that I’m a foreigner.”
One question I have about putting together a schedule for a TV station, obviously you’d be doing that many months in advance…do you have some kind of limit, do you say to yourself, we can only have, say, three cop shows and two quiz shows at the same time. Or does that come into it at all?
“It does in the sense that you’ve got to have a balance of genres. When we’re talking about acquisition series, though, I’d have to say that you can never have enough detectives.”
At Prima you buy some international franchises. For example, you’ve got a new programme coming out soon which is a version of Gordon Ramsay’ Kitchen Nightmares [Ano, šéfe!]. When you’re buying a new programme like that, do you instantly have a sense of what could work in the Czech market, or do you do research? How does that work?
“I think you have a sense of what would work, what wouldn’t. But we do research. We basically make a shortlist of the kind of formats that we like and then we do focus groups and sometimes short clips with internet research as well, to actually work out what would work.
“But it’s not just about the format. It really is, who’s the personality? For example with Kitchen Nightmares we have Zdeněk Pohlreich from Café Imperial, he’s the chief cook there, and it was just automatic when it was him.
“This is what’s very important with lifestyle shows, and I think that’s why we do them so well here, is that we really think not just about the format but about the personality who’s going to be the key person. It’s a real skill to get somebody who has expertise outside of TV but can then communicate on TV.”
Last summer Prima showed the football European Championship, which surprised me given that you have only one channel and there were so many hours of football. Were you worried you could turn off some of your viewers, particularly women?
“It was considered. The evidence, though, is the opposite. During the championships we gained audience, and then we actually grew our audience in the second half of last year, over the first half.
“What we were able to do was, we were aware we were going to get a more male audience, so we did promote a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger films and things like that for specific times, immediately after the championships, so were actually able to keep more men, while not alienating women.
“We have loyal viewers especially for shows like Velmi křehké vztahy, our two-times weekly soap, which is called in English I guess Very Fragile Relationships.”
Given that you’re from the UK and you’ve been working here for several years in television, where do you see the big differences between TV here and TV there?
“I think one, money [laughs]. It’s always an extremely frustrating thing that you cannot spend the same kind of money.
“I think actually a positive thing is, when I look at some of the formats from the UK with some of my Czech colleagues, the creativity and the comedy is excellent in a lot of them. But very often design is weaker than in the Czech Republic. The graphic tradition in the Czech Republic is probably stronger.
“What’s very difficult is finding people in the Czech Republic who have decided to do entertainment as a trade. That’s certainly a very weak thing.
“What’s been a revolution in the last five or six years in the Czech Republic has been drama. The Czech Republic has always had an incredible film tradition, but it’s only been in the last five, six years that the TV machine of regular drama has really started to work. So that’s a really new thing here.”
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