BUCHAREST, ROMANIA — As a glitzy toothpaste advertisement concludes on the main screen with a supermodel's perfect smile, the PRO-TV logo bursts to life in an explosion of color and sound.
The stylish young anchor, Andrea Esca, then crisply announces the headlines, backed by big-budget graphics and a worldwide team of reporters. "Ladies and gentlemen," she says with a self-assured smile, "welcome to PRO-TV news."
With American-style production techniques, unparalleled news coverage, and big-budget serial programming, PRO-TV has taken Romania by storm. After only a year in operation, the private station already dominates ratings in Bucharest and other cities, stealing the lion's share of viewers and ad revenues from the once-dominant state television network (TVR).
Most observers credit PRO-TV with starting a revolution in news reporting, one that has brought political dividends to this long-suffering Balkan nation.
Its objective news coverage has been credited by many with helping topple Ion Iliescu's neo-Communist regime in recent elections, and for changing the way Romanians look at themselves and their political system.
"PRO-TV was essential to the political changes here," says sociologist Gabriel Andreescu of the independent Group for Social Dialogue. "It changed the whole atmosphere of the elections, and gave ordinary people a new awareness of what was going on in the country."
It's certainly television the likes of which Romanians have never seen. Under Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's Orwellian regime, state television broadcast only two hours of television a day to conserve electricity - "one hour about what the Ceausescus did today, the second about what they plan to do tomorrow," according to a popular quip. Most viewers switched to Bulgarian state television, despite the fact that they could not understand Bulgarian.
After the 1989 revolution, TVR increased its programming, but remained under tight government control.
The Communist Party apparatchiks who had seized control of Romania used TVR's television monopoly to maintain their hold on power. But in recent years, that monopoly broke down, due to a combination of social and commercial pressures, and the instillation of alternative cable and satellite networks.
A number of private stations have taken to the airwaves, but none so successfully as PRO-TV. With massive financial backing from Ron Lauder's Central European Media Enterprises - which has also invested in similar stations in Slovenia and the Czech Republic - PRO-TV was able to attract viewers by using slick promotions, recent films, and new American serials such as "X-Files" and "Murder One."
But the station had more than just American serials. Rather than poaching its production, news, and management staff from the dusty halls of TVR, PRO-TV brought up a new generation of print journalists and film and graphics school graduates - most of them in their mid-twenties and with no previous experience in television. They were sent to the US and Britain for several months of training at CNN, the BBC, and other Western news operations.
"We wanted to bring a whole new energy and style to the Romanian airwaves," says Peter Barabas, PRO-TV's executive news producer. "We grew up with boring, dogmatic state television, which never seemed to change. Now, the other stations are trying to follow our lead."
During last year's local and general elections, PRO-TV sponsored a massive advertising campaign to encourage voter participation. Presidential candidates appeared on interview and talk shows and reporters provided live coverage from polling stations across the country, making election fraud more difficult. After local elections, TVR and other private stations tried to copy PRO-TV's format, leading to improvements in the general media coverage of the national campaign.
When the dust cleared, the democratic opposition had swept the presidency, parliament, and local government races. Pollsters noticed that the areas won by the opposition closely matched the broadcast reach of PRO-TV.
"It's tempting to say that we made this little revolution happen, but I don't think it's really true," says Lucian Mandruta, PRO-TV's chief news editor. "Our people wanted changes in their lives - more open, objective, and professional news and political dialogue. We were the first television station to respond to their desires."