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Screening Socialism

TV in Romania

Early History

Scholarship on the invention of television generally underscores attempts to invent the medium in countries such as Russia, America, Germany, Britain and Japan. However, in Eastern Europe, including Romania, engineers and radio professionals also undertook a series of experiments related to television. In 1925, the year when the Scottish engineer John Logie Baird, now seen as the ‘father of television,’ demonstrated a working television for the first time, the Acoustics and Optics Laboratory within the University of Bucharest carried out an experiment that consisted of the transmission of drawings at small distances. In the same year, specialized Romanian radio magazines such as Radio Roman (Romanian Radio) and Radiofonia published pieces of information on television and referred to the new medium as ‘radio-viziune,’ ‘radioteleviziune’ and ‘televiziune.’ Three years later, the Romanian physicist George D. Cristescu carried out the first attempts within Romania of tele-transmission of images and published the first work on television in Romania titled ‘Problema Televiziunii’ (‘On Television’). In November 1937, the Romanian Athenaeum of Bucharest presented the first Romanian achievement in the field of television: an image broadcaster developed in the laboratory of the Faculty of Sciences in Bucharest. The first experimental television station ever built in Romania was conceived in 1954 by a team coordinated by Alexandru Spataru, professor at the Central Laboratory of Telecommunication Research in Bucharest (Ciontu and Gheorghe 2012: 289).

Building a national infrastructure

The first television broadcast in Romania occurred on New Year’s Eve 1956. At the time, television had limited resources and operated from an improvised former movie studio located on Molière Street in Bucharest. A second channel was introduced in Romania on May 2, 1968. At first, it broadcast only three times a day, but beginning in 1970, it broadcast daily for two hours. As a result of technological investments, in 1970 the Romanian Television moved into a new modern headquarters, built on the BBC model (Tiu 2013).

Professional Romanian-British ties and close relationships with the BBC shaped the development of Romanian television in the 1960s. Silviu Brucan, who was appointed vice president of television in 1962 after a period of almost seven years as Romanian ambassador to the United States, established a vision of what Romanian television could be and brought British equipment to Romania. Together with other television professionals, he paid several visits to the BBC in order to learn how TV programs were made in England and how a television production center was organized and administered (Mustata 2012: 134).

The expansion of television infrastructure was given a further impetus in the 1970s. Starting out with 571 broadcast hours in 1957, Romanian television increased its broadcast offer to 1,369 hours in 1961, 3,161 hours in 1971, up to 4,642 hours in 1975, and up to 5,377 hours in 1980. The number of television subscriptions also increased dramatically in this period: from 28,000 subscriptions in 1957 to 2,692,000 in 1975. By 1985, 3,713,000 Romanian citizens had access to television in their own homes (Mustata 2012: 134).

Political control

In its early stages of development, political control was not the defining characteristic of Romanian television. Rather, the Romanian broadcast institution sought to develop relations with foreign broadcasters and connections with other media (radio and film). At the end of the 1960s and 1970s, the liberalization of television content, the growth of sales of television sets, and the boom in house building led to the domestication of television. In his effort to assert the country’s autonomy from the Soviet Union, Ceausescu allowed the broadcasting of American television content on Romanian television. The desire for efficient modes of production, adopted from American ideology, was translated into a prioritizing of work and production over leisure and consumption (Bondebjerg et al 2008: 303-304). This, however, led to a decrease in broadcasting hours in the 1980’s and a reduction in entertainment within television programming. If during 1968-74, the main television channel broadcast around 10 hours per day, by 1985 broadcasting time was cut to 2 hours on weekdays and 4-5 hours per day during the weekend. Local channels and the second national channel were closed. Broadcast output became uniform, and the modes of address were no longer targeted at different audience groups (Mustata 2012: 136). With entertainment programmes kept at a minimum, television became primarily an informative and educational medium with heavily politicized content. The most affected programmes were the news, entertainment, and educational programmes (Campeanu 1993: 110).


In its early stages, Romanian television was indebted to radio. This meant not only that many radio programmes and genres migrated to television (current affairs programmes, theatre plays, children’s programmes, music recitals, interviews, the weather bulletin), but also that radio professionals became the pioneers of Romanian television. Some of the first Romanian television announcers, such as Mariana Zaharescu, Delia Budeanu and Florin Bratescu, first worked in radio.

Under Brucan’s leadership in the early 1960s, Romanian television programmes were influenced by the BBC. Among other things, Brucan acquired Western-made TV series such as the British mystery spy thriller The Saint (ITV, 1962-1969). After Brucan’s resignation in 1965, following Ceausescu’s rise to power, the new management team of the Romanian television continued such visits to the BBC to study, in particular, the making of science programmes, school TV, variety shows, current affairs, live broadcasts, as well as the methods of doing public opinion and audience research (Mustata 2012: 134).

Romania’s opening to the West after 1968 gave a boost to domestic television production as well as foreign imports. As a result, the 1970s were marked by an increase in the variety of genres, an extension of broadcasting hours, a differentiation of audience categories, and an increasing power of scheduling (Mustata 2012: 135). The total broadcast hours rose from 4,642 hours in 1975 to 5,377 in 1980, and the television schedule reflected a growing diversity of programmes, ranging from the ones tailored for children and youth to film and drama series, factual and current affairs, sports, science and social investigation programmes, and interactive programmes that engaged viewers directly (Mustata 2012: 134).

The first Romanian children’s series, Aventurile echipajului Val Vartej (The Adventures of the Val Vartej Crew, 1960-1970), Telecinemateca (1968-), Telenciclopedia (1965-), and the daily social investigation programme Reflector quickly became extremely popular. Telecinemateca and its much-loved title sequence soundtrack (an excerpt from the hit song “This is my song”, written by Charlie Chaplin for his 1967 film A Countess from Hong Kong) introduced Romanians to Romanian films and to international stars such as Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Ingrid Bergman, Shirley Temple, and Marilyn Monroe. Telenciclopedia, which mostly showed a range of educational BBC documentaries with voiceover commentaries by Romanian actors such as Mariana Zaharescu, Dinu Ianculescu, and Florian Pittis, also had a recognizable title sequence soundtrack, written by Romanian composer Nicolae Kirkulescu. Between 1968 and 1972, the Romanian television organized the international pop music event The Golden Stag Festival (Cerbul de Aur), which brought some of the most important European singers at the time to perform on the stage in Brasov. Ceausescu, who saw the event as an excellent opportunity to showcase Romania’s openness to the West, endorsed the festival (Matei 2012: 23).

Throughout the 1970s, Romanian television was relatively open to foreign imports. While the dominant topics on television were social investigation, socialist education, history, folk culture, and sports events, genres such as variety entertainment, television drama, news, cultural, educational and scientific magazines, historical films and melodrama were also quite frequent, since entertainment was seen and a means of pleasing the citizen (Bondebjerg et al 208: 303). Entertainment consisted primarily of Saturday night musical variety shows, the Sunday afternoon family magazine, Sunday and Wednesday night films. The imported children’s drama series about a veterinarian doctor Daktari (1966-69, CBS), the crime drama series Kojak (1973-78, CBS), the detective series Mannix (1967-75, CBS), the fantasy sitcom Bewitched (1964-72, ABC) and the science fiction series Lost in Space (1965-68, CBS) were part of a Sunday afternoon family magazine programme called Album Duminical (Bondebjerg et al 208: 304).

Romanian children had the opportunity to watch foreign-made TV series and cartoons, including numerous Disney cartoons, animated feature films such as Havoc in Heaven (translated as Regele Maimuta, The Monkey King 1961, 1964, dir. Wan Lai-Ming) and The Adventures of Pinocchio (1972, Bavaria Film-TV), an Italian TV Series directed by Luigi Comencini. Those close to the border greatly enjoyed the Bulgarian animated series Leka nosht, deca! (Good Night, Children! 1960, Channel 1 and BNT 1), or Ferdy (1984), an animated series produced in West Germany. Domestically produced children’s programmes were popular as well, and included several TV series such as Tom Sawyer (1967, dir. Wolfgang Liebeneier and Mihai Iacob), a Romanian-French coproduction based on Mark Twain’s novel, Cireşarii (The Children on Ciresari Street, 1972, dir. Andrei Blaier), about a group of children who live in the same neighbourhood, Toate Pânzele Sus! (Let’s Sail! 1976-78, dir. Mircea Muresan), which follows the ship “Hope” in its journey around the world, and Fram (1983, dir. Elisabeta Bostan), about a polar bear living in a circus.

Fictional programmes aimed at adult audiences were similarly varied at the time, and also included foreign imports. Throughout the 1970s, Romanian audiences were able to watch BBC series such as Elizabeth R (1971, BBC) or The Pallisers (1974, BBC) and American films from the 1940s and the 1950s such as Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz) and Gone with the Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming). In 1979, Dallas (1978-1991, CBS) premiered on Romanian television. The dictator was a fan of the programme, but broadcast it to show the evils of capitalism. Ion Ionel, deputy chief of programming at Romanian TV, came across the first few episodes of the series at an international trade show soon after its American debut on April 2, 1978. The soap opera premiered in Romania on August 25th, 1979, and Ionel heroically kept it on the air until 1981 through an ingenious contract (Welch 2005). In 1981, the show was no longer broadcast due to the reduction of broadcasting time and budget restrictions imposed on broadcasting, but some Romanians could still watch it via homemade antennas when the series was broadcast in neighboring countries.

Popular domestically produced TV series often addressed Romanian history: Pistruiatul (The Freckled Boy, 1973), about a teenager who helps the communist movement by going on secret missions given to him by a political prisoner in hiding, Un august în flăcări (A Burning August, 1974), the first TV series made in collaboration with the Buftea studios and whose action revolves around the events of August 1944, and Razboiul Independentei (The War of Independence, 1977), which was made to celebrate the 100 years since the 1877 war, are well-liked by Romanian audiences to this day. The longest and the most important Romanian TV series, broadcast between 1979 and 1982, was Lumini si Umbre (Lights and Shadows). The series was supposed to have 52 episodes, but only 36 were filmed and some episodes were censored. Lights and Shadows provided a social and historical fresco that followed the destinies of several families in a small town in Transylvania involved in important events following World War Two.

The 1970s were also characterized by a power struggle between television professionals and political leaders over scheduling, which was marked by two strands: generic scheduling and frequent scheduling. Generic scheduling implied the prioritizing of specific genres, while programme titles within the broader generic umbrella often changed and did not have a stable and recurrent timeslot. Entertaining broadcasts, such as children’s series and cartoons, often followed educational and instructional programmes. Frequent scheduling referred to the few programmes that had a secure daily and weekly slot, such as Reflector, a social investigation programme aimed at solving cases of social injustice (Mustata 2012:135).

A study conducted by sociologist Pavel Campeanu at the end of the 1970s on the viewing habits of Romanian TV subscribers showed that 80 per cent of Romanians preferred movies and TV series, and that special documentary programmes and special sports events such as the World Cup soccer matches were watched by about 70 per cent of the viewers. In 1979, the average daily audience was 27.4 per cent. The study also found that in 1979, more men than women watched TV, and that while 50per cent of the public had never watched a TV news programme, 19 per cent watched only the evening edition (Campeanu 1981).

The situation changed drastically at the end of the 1970s. By the mid 1980s, programming was reduced to two hours a day on weekdays and four to five hours at weekends until the end of 1989. In the face of restrictions on national television imposed by Ceausescu’s dictatorship, Romanian viewers turned to the television output of its neighboring nations, since signal spillovers in the proximity of national borders enabled the reception of neighboring countries’ television. Romanian audiences received signal crossovers depending on their proximity to the countries neighboring Romania at the time. In the South, audiences of six to eight million received Bulgarian television, while three to four million people in the south-west could receive signals from Yugoslavia (Mustata 2013: 90). Yugoslav television, which had a range of diverse and interesting programmes, was broadcast using a very strong signal that covered the entire Banat, the highest regions of Transylvania, as well as parts of Muntenia and Oltenia (Sorescu-Marinkovic 2012: 176). Those closer to Hungary in the north-west watched Hungarian television, while the north-east region had access to Soviet television. Although such cross-border viewing was banned by the regime on account that the Soviet propaganda of the neighboring countries was as undesirable as Western propaganda, the Romanian authorities tolerated it.


Bondebjerg, Ib et. al. 2008. American television: Point of Reference or European Nightmare? In A European Television History. Bignell, Jonathan and Andreas Fickers, eds. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. 265-314.

Campeanu, Pavel. 1981. “Studies on the mass communication public in Romania.” Etudes De Radio-Television, 30, pp. 153-158. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/61036704?accountid=12152.

Ciontu, Andrei and Mihai Gheorghe. 2012. “50 de ani de la fabricarea primului televizor in Romania.”[Fifty years since the making of the first television set in Romania.”] Noema XI, pp. 289-291. Available at: http://www.crifst.ro/noema/doc/2012_3_10.pdf.

Matei, Alexandru. 2012. “The Golden Stag Festival in Ceausescu’s Romania: 1968-1971.” View: Journal of European Television History and Culture, 1:2, pp. 18-24.

Mustata, Dana. 2012. “Television in the Age of (Post) Communism” Journal of Popular Film and Television, 40:3: 131-140.

Mustata, Dana. 2013. “Within Excess Times and a Deficit Space: Cross-Border Television as a Transnational Phenomenon in 1980s Romania.” In Transnational Television History: a Comparative Approach, ed. Andreas Fickers and Cathy Johnson. New York: Routledge. pp. 89-102.

Sorescu-Marinkovic, Annemarie. 2012. “The World through the TV Screen: Everyday Life under Communism on the Western Romanian Border.” Martor: The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Review. 17, pp.173-88.

Tiu, Ilarion. 2013. “Cum a transformat Ceausescu televiziunea in tribuna propagandista.” [How Ceausescu transformed television into an avenue for propaganda”]. Adevarul, 8 March. Available at: http://adevarul.ro/cultura/istorie/cuma-transformat-ceausescu-televiziunea-tribuna-propagandistica-1_5139101000f5182b85dfa4f0/index.html.

Welch, Matt. 2005. “The second Romanian revolution will be televised: the TV show Dallas helped overthrow Ceausescu.” The Free Library. Retrieved Aug 25 2014 from http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+second+Romanian+revolution+will+be+televised%3a+the+TV+show+Dallas...-a0136120555.


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