Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Hungarian Mass Media and its Cultural Emphasis – I

Janos Gereben
October 20, 1969

Fellowship Year

Lerchengasse 28/43,
1080 Wien, Austria


BUDAPEST—The number of television sets in Hungary (population: 10 million) has shot up from 16,000 in 1958 to over one million in 1966 and to 1.4 million by 1968.

The 1966 figures indicate that there were about 100 TV sets in use for each 1,000 residents in Hungary—still considerably behind the 357 per thousand in the U.S., but ahead of the Soviet Union’s 67 and Yugoslavia’s 30, and just a few fractions ahead of the rate for Austria.

More significant than these impressive figures is the fact that Hungarian TV is good, its programs more varied, engaging, entertaining, and experimental than just about any other nation’s (with the possible exception of the best of BBC).

Although HTV’s growth is phenomenal, it is still a young and often weak enterprise. Program hours, for example, amounted to only 2,391 in 1968 and that compares unfavorably with Western TV output notwithstanding the fact that it represents a two-fold increase over 1960. Mondays are still without any program at all on Hungary’s only station (what would people in America do for a whole day each week without TV?) and weekday programs start at 6 p.m., although there is more and more morning programs for the schools from the brand-new Hungarian ETV. An interesting innovation from this organization is a project encouraging factories and offices to donate TV sets to schools in exchange for public acknowledgment during “prime time” evening programs.

**THE MEDIUM’S MESSAGE—Hungarian mass media, especially television, is remarkably free and “liberal,” with a heavily cultural content and opportunity for non-Communist expression unavailable in any other Iron Curtain country. The Sept. 20-Oct. 26 “Budapest Arts Weeks” (its emblem shown on the right) currently in progress, for example, features music, drama, art exhibitions, TV works and films from East and West, including the best of Hungarian art which, especially in music, is excellent by any standard. At a time of heavy reliance on “classics” in the world’s opera houses, the two houses of the Budapest Opera are presenting four new Hungarian works along with such rarely performed operas as Verdi’s “Nabucco” and “Macbeth,” Debussy’s “Pelleas and Melisande, “Wolf-Ferrari’s “The Four Shrews,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Golden Cock,” and Brecht-Weill’s “Mahagonny” in an annual repertoire of 50 works.

With only 46 hours per week, HTV has an output which is radically different from American or West European television. There is a heavy emphasis on information and the broadcast of cultural events and practically none of the light (and often empty) variety programs characteristic of the West.

This is the breakdown of HTV’s programming for a typical week:

News, documentaries, political25.5%
Theater, literature, TV plays8.5
Classical music3.8
General programs of entertainment20.3
Informational programs7.6
ETV for schools8.9
Children’s programs8.4
Teenagers’ programs4.O
Short films0.6


That 20.3 percent for “entertainment” represents a wide range of programs from telecast of a pop music contest to a dubbed version of “The Flintstones” (honest!) and leaves much of the remaining four-fifths of all television time to eminently worthwhile stuff.

Naturally, there are some mindbending political speeches (the bending is accomplished by boredom, not brainwashing) and unsuccessful imitations of what is the worst in American television. But, on the other hand, there are programs such as putting TV cameras in the hands of interested youngsters to do their thing, cultural programs for which hard cash would have to be paid elsewhere, telecasts of the best plays, operas, concerts.

And, lately, there have been excellent “live and direct” specials ranging from the Olympic Games to the U.S. moon shot. Mostly, however, long-distance pickups (through the East European television network, which has an exchange agreement with Western Europe’s Eurovision,) concentrate on soccer games.

**Lorinc Szabo

**Endre Ady

Not listed in the above program statistics are commercials which come in five-minute bunches, only twice each day. They are simply horrible, primitive and ridiculous (even worse than the pre-1960 U.S. variety), but mercifully they take up very little time.

Taking the place of Jackie Gleason in the evenings, there is an unbroken line-up of news, investigating reports (a significant innovation for the normally blah Communist press), telecasts of sports, concerts, plays, cabaret, opera, as well as original TV works, some of them exciting, visual, enjoyable (while, of course, there is a large number of duds). The important difference is that with Gleason the viewer knows precisely what he is getting, but with HTV it can be anything and of any quality.

With this guessing game (perhaps reminiscent of the early years of U.S. television), it is small wonder that TV is very popular. Over two-thirds of all people in Hungary are watching television in the evening—notwithstanding the fact that only one-tenth actually own a set and that there are a great number of theaters and over 4,000 movies. The newness of television must play a role in creating this vast audience, but its rather high quality is also important as seen by the age of the “average viewer.”

If TV were just a new toy, young people would find something better to do. As it is, 85 percent of people under 24 are spending their evenings before the set (albeit often with a date or a book or other attention-dividing company). Between 25 and 44 years of age, the percent falls to 70, and the over 45s favor TV even less: about 50 percent. An interesting additional datum in this matter is that in urban areas there are more older people watching TV than in the villages while the percentages for the young are almost identical for both groups. Heavy house work and lack of modern kitchen machinery result in the strange situation that more men are spending evenings with television than women. And another peculiar fact is that a higher proportion of educated people watch than those of less schooling.

**POETS—Both Hungarian television and radio (which is not discussed in this report) give much time to literature. Works of these four poets are often read or used in dramatized versions. Linocuts by Pal Veress.

Mihaly Vorosmarty (above, right: Mihaly Csokonai-Vitez)

**WEEKLY OPERA—Part of the classical music program of Hungarian television is weekly broadcast from the Opera (with a separate half-hour show of explanation the night before). Pictures on these two pages are from the spectacular production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cock.” Costumes and sets by Istvan Kopeczi-Bocz; Karola Agay and Gyorgy Melis singing the roles of the Queen of Shemakhan and Czar Dodon; Magda, Mak and Ivan Marko in a ballet scene.

This “more school-more watching” rule must, however, be qualified by saying that this is a matter of regular TV habit; it does not indicate the degree of addiction.

Only 4.3 percent of viewers say that they watch all programs and among these people the rate of education is the reverse than for the first group. Here is the statistical information:

 % of regular% of watching
Schooling (nightly) watchingall programs
Less than 8 grades5622
Less than 12 grade8115
High school graduate866
College graduates800


According to occupation, college students are the most enthusiastic regular viewers (92 percent say they watch nightly), followed by executives and white collar workers (88 %), technical workers (81 %), factory and blue collar workers (74 %), and housewives (51 %). The least amount of watching is among retirees (43 %), but this fact, unusual by Western standards, is explained by their low income vs. the still-high cost of sets and the high proportion of ill people among them—and there is no TV in hospitals.

The more the urban concentration, the more time is spent before TV sets, according to Hungarian statistics. In Budapest, weekly watching ranges from three to 15 hours average; in the next four largest cities, three to nine; in rural areas, less than three.

Ownership of a set, naturally, has much to do with the amount of time spent watching programs. Over 40 percent of TV owners spend 15 hours a week with their sets while 90 percent of those visiting friends to see programs spend less than three hours per week watching.

Broadcasts of theater (plus concert and opera) performances are the most popular TV programs in Hungary. These are the rates of popularity for the various programs, taking all viewers into consideration:

Theater broadcast39 %
General entertainment20
TV plays, specials13
Youth programs10


The above refers to all viewers; among age groups, naturally, the rate of interest shapes up differently. Between the age of 10 and 14, youth programs and movies are the most popular: from 15 to 19, theater broadcasts for the group as a whole, but for the boys: sports. Watched more often than other programs, sports also reigns first for men in the higher age brackets.

Television in Hungary, in spite of its great popularity, still takes only 16 percent of the nation’s entertainment time, The hold of “live” theater, opera, concerts, and movies is still strong while listening to radio and reading newspapers, magazines, and books takes up most of the time.

But TV is changing habits, cutting deep into movie audiences already, just as everywhere else in the world.

**CHANGING TIMES—As TV is becoming more and more popular, other forms of entertainment are losing fans. This magazine, Film, Theater and Music fell to the 13th place in circulation while TV Newsbecame first.

**DOUBLE SHIFT—Budapest film theaters are usually showing two pictures, one during the day and another for evenings. This theater, the “Red Star,” shows an American and a Hungarian picture each day. Programs are changed weekly.

The little country which gave Hollywood a dozen superstars (“It isn’t enough to be Hungarian, you also must have a bit of talent”), besides Alexander, Vincent and Zoltan Korda; Michael Curtiz, Paul Fejos (directors); Lajos Biro (writer); and John Halas (the first great of animation); has always been in the forefront of film culture. Today, freed from the dictum of Stalinism and not yet curtailed by the Soviet neoconservatism, Hungarian pictures by Zoltan Fabri, Miklos Jancso, Andras Kovacs, Istvan Gaal, Istvan Szabo, and Peter Bacso are receiving prizes and critical acclaim throughout Europe.

One base of the creative superstructure is audience interest and Hungary is among the top few countries of “chronic movie-goers.” Daring 1960, 140 million tickets were sold — 14 attendance’s each year for every man, woman, and child!

Since 1960, television (which screens a large number of movies) has been cutting into this figure, reducing it by about seven million annually.

In that peak year of 1960, there were 4,560 movie theaters in the country; by last year, the figure was reduced to 4,033. In Budapest, especially, the number of theaters dropped—was halved as a matter of fact in the past decade. But the remaining theaters are the largest and most modern (unlike the tragic situation in New York where the passing of Roxy and Co. is still lamented by noble fans) while others still in business are modernized and beautified.

Also, the reduced number of theaters is not reflected in attendance figures in full (the number of performances was stepped up) and the number of new films introduced has actually risen.

Number of theaters4,5604,033
Communities having movies2,9993,030
Capacity (in thousands)718632
Performances (in thousands)845733
New films shown148165


Between 1958 and 1968, the number of Hungarian pictures introduced almost doubled (from 13 to 22), Soviet films held steady (31-34), while Western (especially American) pictures increased (45-54) along with imports from East Europe (43-55).

Strangely, while the new Hungarian pictures are gaining fame abroad, home audiences react differently—attendance remained the same although the number of Hungarian pictures and their performances increased substantially. Not strange at all is the fact that Soviet pictures lost audience in direct proportion with the introduction of American films (the former halved, the latter doubled) — Hollywood bedrooms always had more fascination for Hungarians than Soviet tractors and now they are given a choice between the two.

**INTER-MEDIA—A significant characteristic of the Hungarian mass media is the full use of each particular medium for the dissemination of art forms. Just as classical music and theater are promoted via TV, magazines and television shows give graphic artists much space and time; for example, there are many live broadcasts from the opening of art shows on TV while newspapers and general circulation magazines give them extensive reviews. Besides Erik Scholz (whose “Couple” is shown above), works of Gyula Feledy, Arnold Gross, Liviusz Gyulay, Bela Kondor, Gabor Pasztor, Laszlo Lakner, Janos Orosz, Ignac Kokas, Viola Berki, Ilona Keseru, Jozsef Nemeth, Csaba Fejer and Magda Varga received much publicity in the printed and electronic media.

Movie tickets are dirt cheap in Hungary, the average running around 6 Forints (20¢), which is another nice fringe benefit of state support for the arts. (The most expensive ticket to the Budapest Opera is just a bit over $1 while the corresponding price for a less spectacular performance of the Vienna Staatsoper is $20.)

Yet, even the 20-cent tickets represent an increase (10 percent in six years) and the “expense” of going to movies is considered another reason (after the growth of TV) for the reduction in audiences. Hungarians being the movie fans that they are, still show a smaller rate of decrease in movie-going than their neighbors:

Number of films seen per person
Austria 16.39.0
Yugoslavia 7.76.5
(less rapid development of TV)
Poland 6.45.2
East Germany15.06.0
(faster growth of TV than in Hungary)


Education, once again, has a lot to do with the frequency of attending movie performances. Of those beyond 8th grade education, nine out of 10 visit theaters regularly while two-fifths of those with less than eight grades never do. Young people are the biggest fans, over one half of all tickets are purchased by people under 25 years of age. Men are slightly ahead of women (that house work is the problem again), and those of higher income ahead of poorer people —regardless of the low, low price of tickets.

What kind of film do Hungarians like?


% pref.

*under eight grades

**college graduates

Crime343023(but in high schools: 43%)
Musical272418(at the time of this survey, no U.S. musicals were playing—they have them now and the rate is way up)



Other categories receiving less votes of preference were



A survey of individual title preference resulted in a tie between the U.S. “War and Peace” and the Hungarian “Somewhere in Europe.”

Unlike movies, another area of mass media, the press, stood only to gain as a result of television’s growth and gain it did.

There were 752 periodic publications in Hungary in 1967 with a total circulation of 992 million copies. Within these figures are 26 daily papers which make up two-thirds of the total circulation. Weeklies, once quite unimportant, picked up circulation significantly because of television—the relatively new TV News, for example, accounts for 657,000 copies weekly just by itself.

There are 2.2 million copies of daily papers per day in Hungary, 63 per cent of which are national papers. Hungarians have 178 copies of dailies per 1,000 population (vs. 505 in Sweden, 479 in England, 400 in East Germany but well over the rate for Italy, Poland, Romania or Spain), representing a steady growth since the Communist takeover in 1948 with an even steeper climb since the 1956 revolution after which the press became much more free and interesting than during the Stalinist years.

According to 1964 statistics (the latest available in this matter), 80 percent of the population over 10 years of age read dailies regularly and 70 percent periodicals as well. The urban-rural rate is a conventional 90-71 for dailies and 79-60 for periodicals; subscribers: 77 percent in Budapest, 44 in the country (dailies), 61-41 for periodicals.

Occupational data in the statistics for reading habits is extreme: 98 percent of the professionals and “intellectual workers” read (or say they read) newspapers daily vs. 35 percent of the agricultural workers. For periodicals the same rate is 84-35.

The average number of copies (for dailies and periodicals combined) read is 217 per year; 231 for men and 203 for women; 258 for Budapest, 193 for the rural areas.

The conquest of mass media as a whole is truly phenomenal in Hungary — 90 percent of all time for “culture” (entertainment, art, non-school education) are spent on mass media: television, radio, movie, press.

Impressed by their own figures, the authorities are drawing a wrong conclusion: they are complaining that this is happening at the cost of literature, “live” theater, music and graphic arts. “Mass media cannot substitute for the conventional forms of communications, art and entertainment which still give deeper and more lasting values,” they warn sternly.

What they do not see is that there is no need for a “substitute” in this matter (although substitution is certainly the danger in Vast Wastelands) and that in Hungary, at least, mass media extend and expand those “conventional forms.”

When half a million people watch an opera on TV it’s certainly “better” than 2,000 seeing it in the Opera and ditto for thousands reading about an art exhibit in magazines than a few hundred actually attending. The problem arises only when there is no opera on television and no reproductions of paintings in magazines—that’s when “substitution” becomes a national ill.

Happily, this is not the case in Hungary.

**From Hungarian programs

Received in New York on October 20, 1969.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Alicia Patterson Fund.