Loughborough University
Leicestershire, UK
LE11 3TU
+44 (0)1509 222222
Loughborough University

Screening Socialism

TV in Yugoslavia

Early History

News of the spreading of television viewing around the world and its imminent arrival in Yugoslav homes in the latter half of the 1950s provoked a familiar mixture of anxiety and enthusiasm. The prospect of mass television viewing prompted fears of cultural mediocrity, physical and mental passivity, but also inspired utopian projections of a more integrated, educated and culturally refined society (Mihelj 2013: 255). One group that had few qualms about the benefits of television for Yugoslav society consisted of engineers and amateur enthusiasts involved in early experiments with television. Inspired by similar developments in the neighbouring countries and news of rapid advances in the development of television infrastructure in Western European states as well as in the Soviet Union, these television enthusiasts were instrumental in persuading the Yugoslav political authorities that television was an invention worth investing in. The early television experiments in Yugoslav lands date back to the late 1920s (Galic 1986: 24) and were concentrated in Ljubljana and Zagreb – the capital cities of the republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia – which remained at the forefront of television development in the country throughout the socialist period. The studios located in these three cities were also the first to launch regular transmissions of television programmes: Zagreb in 1956 and Ljubljana and Belgrade in 1958 (Leandrov 1986, Voncina 1999, Bizilj 2008: 94-201). Regular transmissions of domestically produced TV content in the remaining Yugoslav republics was established gradually over the course of the 1960s and the early 1970s, with Radio-television Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina launching its own programme in 1961, Radio-television Skopje in Macedonia in 1964, and Radio-television Titograd in Montenegro in 1971 (Galic 1986: 139-140).


A pan-Yugoslav medium?

From its early days, the development of Yugoslav television oscillated between attempts to develop a pan-Yugoslav media system, and the wish to preserve and foster the development of republican and provincial media systems. The push for decentralisation proved stronger, resulting in a federalised television system in which each republic had its own television production facilities and its own television channels (Paulu 1974: 476-477). The industrial production of television receivers, which started in 1955, followed the same pattern, with multiple producers following different production standards. To keep the prices of domestically produced receivers in check, Yugoslav authorities allowed the import of a limited number of receivers from abroad (Galic 1986: 182-183).  

To neutralize the potentially disintegrative effects of such a federalised structure and limit its costs, regional and provincial centres participated in complex arrangements of common programme broadcasting, programme exchange and co-production coordinated through the umbrella organisation Yugoslav Radio-television. The initial arrangement was based on six days of programming weekly, which included three days of domestically produced programmes produced by TV Ljubljana, TV Zagreb and TV Belgrade, and three days of rebroadcasting of Italian and Austrian programmes (Leandrov 1986: 225). It was only in 1965 that the levels of domestic production reached a point that allowed Yugoslav television to switch to broadcasting domestic content seven days a week. Securing pan-Yugoslav content for the daily news bulletin proved to be the greatest challenge. In 1959, the majority of news stories (38%) were related to events in Serbia, followed by stories of federal nature (22%) and stories tied to events in Slovenia (15%) and Croatia (14%), while stories from Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina together accounted for a mere 11% (Leandrov 1986: 229). Language differences were adding to the tensions, and fuelled demands for more programming produced in respective national languages, which eventually led to the introduction of separate news bulletins and growth of locally produced content more generally (Bizilj 2008: 246-249).

In the long run, these trends laid the grounds for the eventual disintegration of the Yugoslav media system in the late 1980s and the early 1990. When the pan-Yugoslav system of programme exchange crumbled in the late 1980s, republican audiences were increasingly served a diet of news and other media content reinforcing the positions of respective nationalist-minded republican elites. In the general climate of insecurity, the combination of a media system segmented along ethnic lines, and a still largely unprofessional journalistic culture ultimately resulted in the creation of increasingly self-enclosed communicative spaces, which fostered diametrically opposed interpretations of the same events and facilitated the country’s descent into war (Mihelj et al. 2009).


Political control

Due to the country’s peculiar geopolitical position, developed in the aftermath of the country’s expulsion from the Soviet bloc, Yugoslav television professionals enjoyed significantly more freedom than their colleagues in the Soviet bloc. The 1960s, in particular, were marked by political and economic reforms that sought to reduce the role of the communist elites and the state and to encourage popular participation in public affairs. Yugoslav media gained greater organisational and financial independence; they were allowed to elect their top management, and began to rely increasingly on advertising revenues rather than state funding (Robinson 1977: 44-45).

One area in which the distinct character of Yugoslav television was particularly prominently apparent was its openness to Western imports and, more generally, its eagerness to become technologically and culturally integrated with Western European broadcasters. While radio-television organisations from other socialist countries retained membership in the Soviet Union-dominated Organisation Internationale de Radiodiffusion et Télévision (OIRT), Yugoslav Radio-television joined Western European broadcasters in establishing the European Broadcasting Union in 1950 (Pustisek 1984) and participated eagerly in EBU news and programme exchanges as well as the Eurovision Song Contest. Existing data suggest that in the early 1970s, as much as 80% of all imported programs broadcast by TV Belgrade came from outside of the socialist bloc and 40% from the U.S. alone (Nordenstreng and Varis 1974, 25).

Nonetheless, the specificities of Yugoslav television should not be overestimated. The constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression could not be used to challenge the privileged role of the League of Communists or question its definition of Yugoslav socialism, nor to fuel suspicion among Yugoslav nations, among other things (Paulu 1974: 472). This became clear in 1972, when Yugoslavia’s aging president Tito, prompted by mounting public dissent and outbursts of nationalist fervour initiated wide-ranging purges among the country’s political, economic, as well as cultural and media elite. In Croatia, key media professionals, including many working for TV Zagreb, were demoted from their roles and expunged from the League of Communists (Novak 2005: 725-736).



Yugoslav television gave pride of place to news and current affairs programmes, which accounted for a sizeable proportion of domestic production from early on (Leandrov 1986: 231). However, as a commentator familiar with television developments elsewhere in the region noted, these programmes were not as heavily laden with explicit political propaganda as their counterparts in the Soviet bloc, even though they did pay particular attention to issues of particular relevance to the socialist vision of modernisation, including the growth of industry, labour productivity and agriculture (Paulu 1974: 481). The late 1960s, in particular, witnessed significant changes in the nature of current affairs programmes, as Yugoslav television professionals started experimenting with more interactive formats and sought to turn television into a ‘public forum’ capable of engaging the masses in a frank discussion about the current state of Yugoslav politics and economy. One particularly telling example of such developments was the launching of a talk show series Aktuelni razgovori (Current Debates, 1965-1969) which addressed the most pressing social problems and involved participants from all walks of life, including factory workers as well as members of political and economic elites (Mihelj 2013: 258).

Despite these innovations, Yugoslav audience preferences leaned towards sports, television fiction and entertainment programmes.  According to a survey conducted in 1963 in Serbia, for instance, sports programs and light entertainment programmes combining music and humour regularly rivalled the popularity of prime-time news programs (Mihelj 2012: 17-18). While audience preferences were certainly not the main factor influencing editorial policies, internal publications and policy documents from the period make clear that the provision or ‘entertainment and relaxation’ was seen as an important function of Yugoslav television (Mihelj 2013: 256). This is evident also from the ample range of entertainment programmes and popular series produced by Yugoslav broadcasters. Many of the most popular series – including TV Belgrade’s Pozoriste u kuci (Theatre in the House, 1973-1984) to TV Zagreb’s Nase malo misto (Our Small Town, 1970-1971) and Gruntovcani (Peasants, 1975) – focused on everyday life, and offer telling insights into popular perceptions of Yugoslav family life and intimacy in its various incarnations, as well as into cultural perceptions of the rural-urban divide and the changing socio-economic contours of Yugoslav life. Another theme often addressed by Yugoslav television fiction was World War Two, prominent in series such as TV Belgrade’s Otpisani (The Outcasts, 1974), TV Zagreb’s Kapelski kresovi (Bonfires of Kapela, 1975) and TV Sarajevo’s Walter brani Sarajevo (Walter Defends Sarajevo, 1974). While stories of wartime heroism were a staple of Yugoslav television production already in earlier periods, the 1970s were characterised by a more concerted attempt to exploit the appeal of popular television genres to inculcate a sense of Yugoslav patriotism after the outbursts of nationalist tensions in the early 1970s.

Yugoslav television also invested heavily in educational programming for both adults and children. While programmes aimed at adult audiences never proved particularly popular, youth and especially children programmes such as TV Zagreb’s Smogovci (1982-1997) or TV Belgrade’s Na slovo, na slovo … (Guess What Begins With Letter …, 1963-1965) and Kocka, kocka, kockica (Cube, Cube, Cubelett, 1975-1993), which typically combined education with entertainment, developed large and loyal audiences and are remembered fondly to this day.



Bizilj, Ljerka. 2008. Slikarji stvarnosti: Podoba slovenskih medijev. Ljubljana: Modrijan.

Galic, Roman. 1986. Tehnicki razvoj radija i televizije u Jugoslaviji, 1926-1986. Zagreb: Skolska knjiga.

Leandrov, Igor. 1986. Pre pocetka: Secanja na pripreme za uvodenje televizijskog programa u Beogradu. Beograd: Televizija Beograd.

Mihelj, Sabina. 2012. ‘Television Entertainment in Socialist Eastern Europe: Between Cold War Politics and Global Developments’, in Anikó Imre, Timothy Havens and Kati Lustyk, eds., Popular Television in Eastern Europe During and Since Socialism, London: Routledge, pp. 13-29.

Mihelj, Sabina. 2013. ‘The Politics of Privatization: Television Entertainment and the Yugoslav Sixties’, in Anne Gorsuch and Diane Koenker, eds., The Socialist Sixties: The Global Movement in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Cuba. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, pp. 251-267.

Mihelj, Sabina, Bajt, Veronika & Pankov, Milos. 2009. ‘Reorganising the Identification Matrix: Televisual Construction of Identity in the Early Phase of Yugoslav Disintegration’, in Kølsto, Pål (ed.) Media Discourse and the Yugoslav Conflicts: Representations of Self and Other, Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 39-59.

Novak, Bozidar. 2005. Hrvatsko novinarstvo u 20. stoljecu. Zagreb: Golden marketing – Tehnicka knjiga.

Paulu, Burton. 1974. Radio and Television Broadcasting in Eastern Europe. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Pustisek, Ivko. 1984. ‘Medunarodna saradnja Televizije Beograd u okviru sistema Jugoslovanske Radio-Televizije 1958-1978’, in Popović, Vasilije, Slobodan Novakovic, Srdan Baric, Slobodan Habic, Vlado Milosevic, Ivko Pustisek and Bojana Andric (1984) Iz istorije Televizije Beograd. Belgrade: Televizija Beograd, pp. 185-249.

Robinson, Gertrude Joch . 1977. Tito’s Maverick Media: the Politics of Mass Communications in Yugoslavia. Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press. 

Voncina, Nikola. 1999. TV osvaja Hrvatsku: Prilozi za povijest radija i televizije u Hrvatskoj III, 1954.-1958. Zagreb: Hrvatski radio.


Contact us

  • +44 (0)1509 223363
  • Screening Socialism
    Brockington Building
    Loughborough University
    LE11 3TU