The healing power of trash TV
We’re a little different, Karel Peterka tells the older two-member telemarketing delegation who have come to his office to offer their professional services. Their aim is to help Šlágr TV to make more money from its Czech folk music-loving viewers. “It’s not about wheedling money out of such people. In fact, we are helping them.”
Helping? As I sit in a faux leather chair in the corner listening to the end of the sales pitch, I wonder how exactly this is true. The fact that I am in the office of the owner and manager of Šlágr TV is immediately obvious to me: the equipment and backdrop mirror the station’s own famous “small” TV studio with its bulky armchair, fireplace and brick wall. It is from there that every day Peterka and others perform their magic for the station’s equally small audience.
But it is also a place where closer inspection reveals that the wood is imitation; so is the fire; so are the background Alps. Only a huge television in the corner of the office, from which Peterka likes to regularly watch his station’s output, is unquestionably real.
“Today I view the station as a mission,” the small 65-year-old man, dressed in black, and with a large watch on his wrist, tells me as we sit down to talk. “If you were there at one of our concerts, you would understand the love. We receive 200 letters filled with expressions of love per week. We are surrounded by considerable beauty. My wife heals people…”
“Is she a doctor?” I ask. I am familiar with Jana’s stints on Šlágr TV – not just as a presenter but also as an accessory to some of the worst songs about Roma, Vietnamese and also Václav Havel, often sung with suspiciously familiar melodies.
“No, she is more like a sorceress,” laughs Peterka. “A guy visited her and said that the doctors told him he needed three operations. But after three visits with my wife, he was cured. In Slovakia, I was visited by a woman who held me by the hand and told me she had a tumour. But then when they put on Šlágr TV for her, she suddenly felt better. At the station we are constantly surrounded by love, gratitude and beauty.”
Peterka often sounds a little mad, not to mention self-congratulatory, but the numbers behind his business are more than healthy: according to the most recent month’s ratings data from ATO-Mediaresearch, in October, Šlágr TV achieved a more than two percent share in the 55+ age group and in the 65+ category more than three percent. And the numbers continue to improve. Consequently, Šlágr TV 2, aimed at younger viewers, is already in the pipeline. And infomercials have also recently been joined on the channel by regular commercials, bringing in CZK 1.2m per month.
Only after taking a walk through the company’s Hall of Fame can the entirety of Peterka’s operation be comprehended. Down in a small town called Dubné in the South Bohemian region, the halls of a building that once housed the administrative offices of the communist-era JZD agricultural cooperative are now decorated with Peterka’s published catalogue of music cassettes, CDs and DVDs. Šlágr TV may well be trashy and kitsch – as is the sound of somewhat tone deaf singers merrily singing along to well-known songs - and a place where bizarre clothing is common, but their performers are selling more CDs and DVDs than Czech household names such as Lucie Bílá and Dan Landa. “Our best bands have sold 5,000 CDs a month,” says Peterka. The total sales figures are even more eyebrow-raising: Josef Sochor, the amateur singing pensioner from Pardubice, can proudly boast of going platinum with 30,000 CDs sold. And the chief stars of the moment, the father and son team going under the name of Duo Yamaha who perform everything from pop to folk, have already sold around 70,000 CDs and DVDs.
Peterka also discovered the duo Eva a Vašek who went on to sell hundreds of thousands of CDs and DVDs. “In total, they made 11.5 million crowns with me. And I made 18 million off them,” says the owner of Šlágr TV. Importantly, Peterka also owns the music publishers Česká Muzika, which thanks to having its own TV station to promote its acts, has become the third largest music publisher in the country.
Soothing the soul
“Come and have a look. I will show you something,” Peterka beckons me. I watch several Šlágr TV concerts on his computer monitor. The first is by Šlágr Band, comprised of members of the station’s staff, including Peterka and his wife and son. And humming along is a full hall of star-struck, mostly older people dressed in cheap clothes from Vietnamese markets. A second concert features the gleeful Duo Yamaha, with countless more modern dressed youngsters enthusiastically singing and dancing along to the performance. “This is an alternative world that exists in Germany and Benelux. A major project is being prepared in Poland too. In Germany they also once laughed at this kind of music, the same way they are laughing now in our country. But then they discovered how many people like traditional folk music, because it represents people’s identities.”
Or otherwise put: “I am a musician, and when I came here, Karel and I had some disagreements. I told him: wake up, this is just not possible!” confesses Tomáš Jedlička, a younger presenter, court musician for Šlágr TV and also an infomercial pitchman for flyers, beer mugs and key chains emblazoned with the logo of the station. “This cannot work without heart!” he adds, without explaining whether he means the music or the key rings.
Šlágr TV actually owes its existence to Czech Television (ČT). When the public service broadcaster went ad-free a few years ago, Peterka lost the main outlet for his infomercials. “Back then, my wife and I said that we should just do it all ourselves. I could have just said I’m done with it. Our publishing house had a turnover of between CZK 120-130 million annually. We could have moved to Italy where we own an apartment. But I didn’t want that spoilt world so often revered today! Our TV station means so much more to us than that.”
Incidentally, the operation of the station is largely dependent on a monthly CZK 10m in broadcasting fees. “I’ve already made far more money elsewhere. Here it’s all about the beauty which we are producing together,” Peterka insists.