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A Fraught Digitalisation

Albania is one of 119 countries that signed the 2006 Geneva convention on the digitalization of terrestrial TV broadcasters, but also one of the few countries in Europe that missed the June 2015 deadline for the switchover from analogue to digital TV. The related process of license distribution in Albania was completed two years late, in January 2017, marred by rows and court cases.

As long ago as 2004, nine broadcasters were already transmitting programmes with digital signals without owning the respective broadcasting licenses. In June 2012, the centre-right government of former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, approved the national strategy for the digital switchover, foreseeing the distribution of seven frequencies or licenses to local operators through a tendering process known as a “beauty contest”. Two out of the seven digital licenses were attributed to the Public Broadcaster RTSH, by the Decision of the Council of Ministers. Apart from the obligations assumed as a signatory to the Geneva convention, the digitalization process in Albania was perceived by many as an opportunity to regulate a market where a number of operators had been transmitting digital TV and occupying frequencies for more than a decade without prior authorization.       

Although it commenced in 2012, the digitalization process experienced some setbacks in the following five years. The change of government in 2013, when Sali Berisha lost the elections, temporarily suspended the digital license distribution. The Audio-visual Media Authority (AMA), being in charge of the process, also experienced a change in leadership, when Gentian Sala was appointed the new head of AMA in November 2014. At that point a number of court proceedings were already launched by dissatisfied contenders.    

In April 2015 AMA initiated a new ‘Beauty Contest’ for the distribution of five digital licenses. The tender set out only two criteria for selection: possessing a national license and / or an experience in digital broadcasting. Accordingly, five companies were selected by AMA: Top Channel TV, Klan TV, the digital platforms Tring TV and DigitAlb, and SuperSport, the digital sports broadcasting platform, which was wholly owned by DigitAlb, headed by the same director and had a suspended status in the business registry the day the tender was announced. In terms of owners, the competition was between only three contenders: the Hoxha Family, owner of Top Channel, DigitAlb and SuperSport, the Frangaj Family, owner of Klan TV and the Dulaku Family, owner of Tring TV.   

The decision to include SuperSport in the ‘Beauty Contest’ and to exclude Media Vizion, the parent company of Vizion Plus TV, was contested in court by the latter. The head of Media, Vizion Genc Dulaku, claimed at the time that AMA’s decision clearly favoured the Hoxha Family and their companies Top Channel, DigitAlb and SuperSport. In response to AMA’s decision, Media Vizion pulled Tring TV from the tender and filed a civil lawsuit in Tirana’s district court. In addition to Media Vizion’s concerns over AMA’s alleged bias in the process, came a case of conflict of interest since the head of AMA, Gentian Sala, had been the administrator of e-Solutions (2008-2009), a subsidiary company of Digit-Alb. Sala vehemently denied that he favoured his former employer. 

As a result of the row created, the lawsuit from Media Vizion and Tring TV’s withdrawal from the tender, AMA disqualified SuperSport from the first round of the ‘Beauty Contest’ and the process was blocked. In March 2016, through a court ruling, AMA awarded the first three digital licenses to DigitAlb, Top Channel TV and Klan TV.         

In November 2016 AMA opened a new tender for the distribution of the two remaining digital licenses. Five companies, including ABC News, Tring TV, Media Vizion, Ora News and ADTN, competed for two licenses. Of the five bidders, ADTN was a new company created in September 2016 and wholly owned by DigitAlb without a national license or a prior digital broadcasting experience. In late December 2016, AMA awarded the fourth license to Media Vizion, while it disqualified ABC News, Ora News and Tring TV. ADTN remained in the race, although AMA’s board did not have the necessary quorum to award it a license in the December meeting. In January 2017, AMA awarded the fifth license to ADTN, which stands for Albania Digital Television Network, completing the distribution of digital licenses. After the decision Ora News and Tring TV filed criminal charges against AMA. 

At present, also the pay-per-view market is highly concentrated with the five digital licenses landing in the hands of three media owners: again the Hoxha family with DigitAlb, Top Channel and ADTN, the Frangaj Family with Klan TV and the Dulaku Family with Media Vizion. In terms of market share, the Hoxha Family alone has 55% of the pay-per-view market. The Albanian legislation does not provide for mechanisms aimed at safeguarding media pluralism or preventing unacceptable levels of concentration of media ownership. Throughout the tendering process AMA did not take potential ownership concentration issues into account when distributing digital licenses.

The digitalisation process is still underway with a myriad of local television operators having to fulfil technical requirements for the analogue-to-digital switchover.    

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