Coming to NATPE Budapest: Ralf Bartoleit, CEO bTV Media Group

Photo credit: Yordan Simeonov, 24 Hours.


CEETV, one of the most comprehensive sources of professional information on television in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), kicks off its series of interviews with CME executives with an in-depth Q&A session with Ralf Bartoleit, CEO of bTV Media Group and member of the NATPE Budapest Advisory Board. Yako Molhov’s questions ranged from the political situation in Bulgaria, to the performance of bTV Media Group and the plans for the new season and the growth of VOYO, as well as Bartoleit’s participation in the CEO Insights from CEE panel at NATPE Budapest 2024.

Ralf, Bulgaria has once again found itself into a political crisis. There has been a total of 7 elections since 2021, 5 of which for parliament and new elections coming up in summer. How is this affecting the TV market in the country, combined with the overall financial crisis?

The situation in Bulgarian political life is indeed dynamic, and the equation for a successful formula seems increasingly complex. I take the liberty of recalling a quote by the German politician Helmut Kohl, who, may be criticized by some, but is at the same time one among the brightest names in international politics. His words referred to the unification of Germany: "Yesterday's visionaries are today's realists! (Die Visionäre von Gestern sind die Realisten von Heute). Unlike the idea of reunification, what we see in Bulgaria is a difficult configuration with many possible solutions. What is the correct vision for Bulgarian politics I cannot say, but I am confident that journalists are making considerable efforts to inform the public about all important issues and events. The bTV newsroom continues to produce exceptional work. Our reporters cover all the political processes vital to the future of the country and all of life’s social aspects. Work in the media sector is very intense during election periods, and I can say one good thing about having so many elections are the fact that the team is just well prepared - breaking news, special studios, debates and much more. Journalists in the newsroom must do their job with the same objectivity and a bit more intensity because the situation requires it. The news and current affairs editorial teams are ready with the special program for the upcoming 2-in-1 elections and viewers will be able to make their own informed and sensible choices.

What are bTV Media Group's results for 2023 and what are your expectations for 2024? What will be your main challenges, alongside the aforementioned crises?

We had a great 2023, where we clearly saw that advertisers want to be closer to their consumers, be more proactive in what they offer, but also bring more emotion to them. This led to an increase in advertising budgets and investment throughout the year. Simply put, nothing works like advertising. bTV ended the year with a positive financial result and 2023 was also the most successful year for bTV in terms of digital sales. This means that we and our teams are moving in the right direction and meeting the needs of the market – customers and partners are happy, platforms are growing and so are the business results. Our expectations for 2024 are continuous evolution in technology, enrich our programing grid, and make new investments in content that resonates with consumer tastes. Although some other markets, such as Germany, have seen a serious decline in advertising revenues, our outlook for Bulgaria remains positive. We are looking for more opportunities to offer integrated solutions to our business partners and increase our market share.

Will the Bulgarian ad market see growth this year and how is bTV positioned in the TV and digital segments?

The main trends in the media and advertising market in Bulgaria in 2024 are related to consumer expectations, technology, and artificial intelligence. The media market in Bulgaria is not so big compared to other markets in the European Union, but in terms of professionalism, creativity, ideas, implementation, it maintains a high level. Brands are getting bolder. We try to offer tailor-made solutions that help our clients meet their business needs. We expect an increase in investment in advertising, which will lead to an even better quality of offered TV and digital content.

Unfortunately, the unexpected change in the legislation and the complete ban on gambling advertising on TV, Digital and Radio, will have a significant impact on most of the media budget forecasts. Our main concern is that despite this change, gambling advertising will not stop. Rather, investment will be redirected to other channels. What we see from other markets is that a total ban leads to a significant increase in the black market, and this puts consumers at greater risk, especially the younger generation who are very active on social media. We therefore fully support the idea of increased regulation of the sector and the call by the Association of Bulgarian Broadcasters (ABBRO) for a wider debate on the possibilities and best practices in regulating the gambling advertising and media market.

This spring you relied on proven formats: Who Wants to be a Millionaire, The Bachelor, Dancing Stars (Bulgaria's version of Dancing with the Stars), I Love My Country, Sunny Beach. You also launched a new series - Alpha. What are your spring TV season ratings results, did you register growth compared to 2023?

We have made a really fresh and energetic start to the year. In fact, we replaced the Turkish primetime series with new entertainment content, and this is probably one of the most visible and serious steps in the renewal of bTV's programming. Our main goal is to consolidate our aspiration to present high quality productions that bring audiences of different ages and genre preferences in front of the screens. We brought new top celebrities faces in our shows, fantastic new formats like Who Knew?, I Love My Country and Dancing Stars, another successful season of The Bachelor, but also Bulgarian series such as Sunny Beach and new episodes of our social project Home Makeover. The efforts of all our teams are evident and I am proud of the results. Our investments are focused on bringing new content to the main channel bTV, but also on expanding the offering with premiere titles on the niche channels. From January to the end of April 2024, we see strong 8% growth in all day (AD) viewership at bMG group level and 15% growth in primetime (PT) compared to the same period last year. For niche channels, the growth is even more impressive, with 28% in AD and 44% in PT compared to the same period last year (01-04.2024 vs 01-04.2023, source: GARB, TG 18-49, AD/PT). These results are not just numbers, but a real motivation for all of us to work even harder to prove our position as the leading media group in the market.

Announced novelties for fall 2024 include hit show The Island of the 100 Bracelets (adaptation of Million Dollar Island) and the reboot of 2009 adventure reality Run to Victory. Tell us more about those two adventure formats, is adventure reality the most-watched genre in Bulgaria? Any other new shows/series prepped for fall? Will The Voice, The Farm, MasterChef be making a return?

I have to admit that launching a completely new format is not an easy task. We want to offer the Bulgarian audience a modern reality show that has already won over audiences on several continents. bTV is a pioneer in launching successful formats and I believe we are taking another confident step in this direction. The Island of 100 Bracelets (Million Dollar Island by Talpa Studios) will be an adventure of a lifetime for many Bulgarians, beside the impressive prize we give. Together with the entertaining and loved Run to Victory show, bTV's renewed programming schedule in 2024 will strengthen bTV's position as a proven brand for creating some of the world's best and most original reality shows. The Voice of Bulgaria was the most watched show in its time slot on Sunday nights last autumn and we are planning another great season. Our ambition is to offer viewers more variety, a palette for every taste and preference - more entertainment content, strong news and journalism, documentaries, more sports events, premieres, etc. We will soon be revealing more details and sharing some exciting news. Stay tuned.

Тhis year the Bulgarian Commission for the Protection of Competition (CPC) approved the acquisition of leading provider Bulsatcom by your main competitor United Group which operates Nova Broadcasting Group. How is this deal affecting the Bulgarian TV market which is known for its very high cable and satellite TV penetration?

We have appealed against the decision of the CPC before the Bulgarian courts which indicates that we do have concerns as to how the deal might affect the related markets and the end consumers. It is however a rule of bTV not to comment on pending court procedures.

You rebranded bTV Lady into bTV Story in December 2023. The niche channel scored impressive results and a month later was the fourth most-watched net in PT. Will you make other adjustments to your portfolio of niche channels? Have you planned the launch of new niche nets for 2024?

The rebranding of bTV Story in mid-December yielded immediate results. With this strategic move the new bTV Story is in Primetime now very often the No.4 channel in the country with a remarkable triple-digit increase in both PT and AD share compared to 2023. This is a fantastic success for the whole team. We have a wide range of genres and offer our viewers hours of world premieres and top titles from Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, the UK and France. What I can say is that we are looking at all the possibilities that could be an enrichment and development of our brand portfolio and thematic content.

bTV is part of one of the leading media groups in the region - Central European Media Enterprises (CME). What are the synergies within the group, have you planned co-productions with sister channels and partners outside of the company?

We work successfully with our colleagues from CME. This covers both entertainment and news content. Each country takes the best from the other within CME and this helps a lot not only to develop ideas and projects locally, but also to maintain the same high level in parallel in all 6 markets - Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Romania & Moldova, Slovakia, and Slovenia. CME is the first media group in the region that held a dedicated Green Week at all its stations, supporting the EU Green Week and following the footsteps of broadcasters in the UK, Germany and other countries, who have been raising awareness of the severity of climate crisis already for many years. In 2023 CME Green Week content reached a total of 23 million viewers. Initiative takes place in June and throughout the week, stations organize events for employees and provide various climate-related content, inspiring viewers to make sustainable choices. CME also aims to minimize the carbon footprint of its productions, and it was the first media group in the CEE to join albert, an association promoting environmentally responsible production in the TV and film industry. In Bulgaria, we have already certified 7 bTV productions and our target is to reach 100% of our shows by 2027.

CME's streaming service Voyo plays an increasingly important role for the company's overall strategy, now boasting over 1 mln subscribers in all territories combined. How would you describe the streaming market in Bulgaria, do you see room for growth?

The streaming market in Bulgaria is constantly growing and our expectations is for VOD market to continue its growth. Despite Bulgaria being a small and a very price sensitive market, the rise of on-demand services can be clearly observed. It is a global trend based on the convenience and ease of this type of content usage. We see a room for growth, especially for local players like VOYO who know the local preferences and can offer a tailor-made service for the Bulgarian market.

What is the streaming service's performance in Bulgaria compared to other streamers? What is bTV Media Group's content strategy for Voyo? Will viewers see Voyo Originals soon?

VOYO in Bulgaria keeps its steady customer base and is among the key players on the market. It is one of the first platforms on the market and is well known brand among the customers. In Bulgaria, VOYO offers a catalog with over 9.000 hours of quality video content from various genres - Bulgarian and foreign series, films, live sports, children's content, and TV shows from the bTV portfolio. Among the top performers are always the local titles – this season Sunny Beach, the new series Alpha, and the top reality Dancing Stars. Drama and crime series are also among the most consumed. Users can enjoy exclusive content, Champions League football, and other special events from the world of sports. The best part is that our library is live, we add new episodes and titles every day so the customer can find new entertainment and stories on the platform constantly. We are very conscious of the customer preferences and try to adapt to what our local audience wants to see on the platform. A big advantage for VOYO is that we focus on the Bulgarian audience only so we can offer what Bulgarians want to watch specifically. Our efforts are now centered on improving the user experience and increasing engagement through technological upgrades and content partnerships.

Bulgaria is currently not a major market for the international streamers, with many of them not even offering localization in the country, not to mention local content. Do you see opportunities stemming from that fact?

Our CME family has one common goal and strategy: to continue to be the leading content producer in the CEE region, delivering high quality and high-volume local content for distribution across our linear and digital channels. In Bulgaria, our goal is to meet the demands of our consumers and clients, which includes localization. Audiences clearly prefer, and in some cases expect, to watch content in the local language, so a major competitive advantage for VOYO in Bulgaria is that all content is in Bulgarian without exception.

In our last interview, you noted that your digital assets enjoyed double digit growth in 2023. Is this growth continuing in 2024 and what is your strategy for digital?

bTV Media Group's digital strategy focuses on three main areas - video, technology, and social platforms. Our digital platforms are built on the TV experience with exclusively curated formats, and a healthy collaboration between all formats results in quality content and offerings that resonate with all consumers. VOYO will play a more central role in our portfolio very soon. There is a fresh new brand identity that will be presented on the Bulgarian market, coming with an updated platform for better user experience and of course lots of high-quality content for our consumers. Our goal this year is to ensure that bTV Plus, VOYO and all digital platforms are well-positioned, technically secured and running according to the latest high-tech trends, allowing consumers to choose what they want to watch, where and how they are most comfortable.

You are a member of NATPE Budapest 2024's Advisory Board and a speaker at the leading market event for TV in CEE. What are the main topics and issues you will focus on and how would you describe the current state of the CEE TV and streaming markets?

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to be part of this high-profile event. With the help of the best media and entertainment experts from the CEE and EMEA regions, we want to focus on the development trends of our industry and create the best, most relevant and useful content. I have strong contacts with many of the production houses and colleagues from neighboring countries. It is always useful to learn what works well in other markets. Sometimes you have two markets that are very close geographically and they buy the same product, but the results are completely different. This is one of the biggest challenges in the media business - thinking globally, predicting developments several years ahead, but at the same time having a deep understanding of your audience and their preferences so that you can be successful locally. I can't wait to join the NATPE community in June and exchange ideas with so many people from the region.