Aleksandra Subotic, CEO of United Media: Leading the way in media services and expanding for the future

03. June 2023

Below is the exclusive interview with United Media CEO Aleksandra Subotic for CEETV.

Aleksandra, United Media is the leading media company in South East Europe, broadcasting 55 channels in 8 countries. What are your ambitions? Are you planning to expand your portfolio with more acquisitions or new channels?

At United Media, we are passionate about leading the media services industry not just in Southeast Europe but on a broader scale. When we first launched United Media a decade ago, we started with several cable channels and an advertising agency. Since then, our business has grown to become one of the largest media portfolios in Europe, with more than 100 media assets encompassing TV, web portals, radio stations, and print. We offer comprehensive solutions for every need that arises in the media ecosystem, from production and distribution to advertising. However, we do not intend to rest on our laurels. We continuously explore avenues for expansion, such as potential acquisitions or the launch of new channels. Nevertheless, all decisions are grounded in extensive market analysis and a profound comprehension of our audience.

Right now, I’m thrilled to share that we’ve come to an agreement with Forbes, the largest global business media brand, to launch five digital editions in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. These new licensed Forbes websites under United Media will serve as a premier platform for discussing some of the most influential leaders, managers, investors, and entrepreneurs from the Adriatic region who are making a significant impact on the world by driving change and transforming business. Being recognized as a partner by such a large and respected company like Forbes is a tremendous honor and privilege for United Media.

The CEE TV market historically has been a very dynamic one, with lots of M&A throughout the years. What are the main challenges and opportunities for the TV and digital market in our region as a whole and for the specific countries you operate in?

One of the key challenges facing the TV and digital markets in our region is the need to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology and changing consumer behaviours. This requires us to be innovative and forward-thinking in our approach, investing in new technologies and platforms that allow us to reach and engage with our audiences in new and exciting ways. In Bulgaria, for example, we are currently exploring inventive approach to interact and reconnect with the younger generation who are not actively engaged with traditional media. Our efforts include ground-breaking initiatives aimed at empowering young people to create fascinating TV content.

It is important to emphasize that United Media has strategically prioritized investment in the digital area. In past years, we have consistently challenged conventional limits in terms of optimizing content placement across various digital platforms. This pioneering approach has yielded substantial advantages, as evidenced by our sustained revenue growth. Additionally, we maintain a strong focus on worldwide content distribution on all digital platforms, ensuring its widespread reach and accessibility.

We are also pushing the boundaries by bridging the gap between digital content and traditional television. A prime example of our efforts is the ground-breaking IDJ Show, an interactive digital talent show that we pioneered and debuted on TV – a show in which we turned young participants into regional music stars during and not after the end of the competition, leveraging the power of social networks for their promotion. During the first season, the hashtag #IDJShow amassed over 100 million views on TikTok and we are eagerly waiting for the second season in the fall.

Furthermore, recognizing the growing influence of platforms like Tok-tok among the younger audience, we have taken the bold step of launching news production specifically tailored for this platform.

Of course, each of the countries in which we operate has its own unique characteristics, such as different stages of growth and development, values, styles of content consumption, and levels of media freedom. All of these are criteria that we consider while creating development plans in each of those countries.

However, we could say that the universal formula is great content that we provide to a specific audience, and we’ll continue to invest in original programming and production capabilities across our markets. This is a critical element of our strategy to remain relevant and competitive in an increasingly crowded media landscape.

Will you continue to “fight” for a Free TV license in Serbia?

Absolutely. We firmly believe that our investment in superior content deserves a national frequency in Serbia. Our channels have earned recognition from viewers as high-quality programs.

In the last month, the importance of our media in Serbia has been further confirmed. After two mass murders and among a general atmosphere of sadness, insecurity, and protests against violence, N1 and Nova have assumed the role of a media public service. They have diligently informed the public about the unfolding events while the official public service broadcaster neglected its responsibilities. Thus, N1 and Nova have effectively filled the void and emerged as the trusted channels that fulfills the role of a true media public service, particularly during times of crisis.

Also, Nova channel has emerged as Serbia’s most viewed cable station, rivaling those with national frequencies in terms of audience. During this spring, it shattered previous viewership records and claimed the title of being the most-watched commercial television station in Serbia.
Despite possessing an exceptional program and fulfilling all of the requirements outlined by independent authorities, the attainment of a license is not necessarily guaranteed in Serbia. As a media company devoted to independent journalism, we believe that a free and independent press is essential to a healthy democracy, and we are committed to upholding that principle in everything we do.

Are you planning to expand the N1 news brand in the region?

Our plans for the N1 brand in the region are ambitious, as we aim to continue its growth and expansion. Recently, N1 was granted a national broadcasting license in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it is one of the top pay TV stations in Serbia and Croatia. In Slovenia, our focus is on developing the N1 digital portal, which has already gained popularity among readers and is rapidly expanding.

Moreover, we are proud to have extended our successful partnership with the world-renowned and prestigious news channel CNN, which is a testament to N1’s commitment to independent media and the high quality of journalism we provide.

N1 is a standout model showcasing the evolution of TV news into comprehensive news platforms, driven by the seamless integration of digital extensions. With this approach, N1 exemplifies how traditional television news has successfully adapted and increased its reach via the integration of digital technologies and online platforms. This way, N1 has effectively tapped into the evolving media landscape, offering a multi-faceted news experience that caters to the preferences and habits of modern people.

These developments will strengthen N1’s position as a leading news platform in the region. We continue to uphold the principles of professional and credible journalism, providing our audience with accurate, reliable, and relevant news and information.

When running a news channel, it is crucial to build trust with your viewers. They need to feel confident that they will find the information they are looking for without having to double-check elsewhere. N1 has achieved this trust. Over the past nine years, N1 has become the most reliable source of information for citizens, especially during times of crisis. This trust is the most important aspect of their success.

United Media is part of United Group – the leading multi-play telecoms and media provider in South East Europe. What are the most important synergies between the two companies and how is United Media benefiting from being part of a large regional telecom operator? 

Synergy is the essence of harnessing the combined power of a group working together, surpassing the individual capabilities of each component. As a member of an expansive international group, both media and telecom companies benefit from staying ahead of the curve, unlocking new business prospects, and boosting overall revenue. Being part of a forward-thinking collective that invests in innovative solutions and fosters business development across various domains is truly advantageous.

United Media’s reputation for producing high-quality content and regional experience in other media services (like advertising or digital distribution) makes it a valuable partner to both United Group and other telecom operators with whom it collaborates.

An exceptional example of our synergy is evident in the EON platform, a streaming platform developed within the United Group. Leveraging the popularity of this widely-used video platform, our media company’s content reaches a broad and diverse audience, not only in the region but also globally. Notably, original formats like Grand Stars (Zvezde Granda) have gathered a widespread following, spanning across continents. Thanks to the EON platform, our channels and content are now accessible to viewers worldwide, regardless of their location. This global reach allows us to connect with our audience wherever they may be.

At the same time, the telco company can offer its subscribers the highest quality media content.

How would you describe the current status of the CEE advertising TV market, post-COVID, amid war in Europe? What is your forecast for the different market?

Challenging! The market has been impacted by the pandemic and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which has led to uncertainty and economic instability. The last three years have taught me to be very careful with predictions. Markets will continue to face challenges in the short term, but there is potential for growth in the long term. It is important for TV providers to focus on offering high-quality content that attracts advertisers.

Additionally, it is essential to embrace digital channels and find ways to integrate TV advertising with digital channels to offer advertisers a more comprehensive and effective marketing solution. One of the most innovative advertising solutions we develop in-house is the VIDA platform for addressable advertising, which gives us the ability to show different ads to different households while they are watching the same program. In this way, advertisers can send their messages to the target group they are addressing and in the territory in which they operate, which makes the space of television advertising more accessible to a large number of small and medium enterprises.

The spring TV season is almost over. Your Bulgarian TV operation Nova Broadcasting Group reported strong viewership results. What about your other flagship channels in the region and what were your most-popular programs this season? 

Yes, Nova Broadcasting Group achieved remarkable results this spring. In March, they reached a record-breaking performance with an average audience share of over 30%. During the parliamentary elections in Bulgaria, Nova dedicated almost 18 hours of programming to the event and they were the top choice among viewers.

Other television stations inside UM achieve excellent performance, also. Most popular entertainment programs are foreign licensed formats such as competition shows Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, Super talent and MasterChef achieved phenomenal ratings in Croatia. Also, we introduced American reality show The Biggest Loser to Serbia for the very first time and were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response from our viewers. Our original competition show, Grand Stars, has continued to be one of the most watched shows for 18 seasons. In addition to our successful entertainment programming, all of our channels are recognized for their credible informative programs, in-depth documentaries that are the result of months of research, stimulating talk shows, and exclusive interviews. Our sports channels broadcast a range of elite competitions across all of our countries, including the Premier League, Euro league and Euro cup, Formula 1, Moto GP, and tennis, amongst others.

What about the fall TV season? What shows and series will be returning to your Free TV channels in the region and what new titles and projects can you reveal?

This fall, NOVA will be airing the fifth season of the hit reality show “Desafio Bulgaria”. The show features extreme experiences and multiple challenges that test the physical and mental skills of the participants while also showcasing the beauty of Bulgaria’s nature. Each year, it takes place in some of the most remarkable locations along Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. Additionally, NOVA is continuing its long-term strategy of supporting Bulgarian films with a fresh series of high production standards. Film production is a key strategic priority for our media company in Bulgaria.

Nova in Croatia will continue with all of its successful formats that have garnered recognition from the public, including Super Talent and Mastechef. Additionally, they are planning to launch a new daily series. In Serbia, the new TV drama “Time of Death” will premiere, based on Dobrica Cosic’s novel of the same name. This series portrays one of the most difficult and devastating episodes in Serbian history, the Great War.

As a company that operates TV channels in several territories do you have a more centralized programming strategy or do you rely entirely on decisions made by the local management? Are there major differences between what viewers like in Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia; etc?  Have you planned co-productions between your channels in CEE? 

As a company that operates TV channels in several territories, we have a decentralized programming strategy that allows us to adapt to local preferences and cultural differences. Our local management teams are responsible for programming decisions, but we do have a shared understanding of what works across different markets. We understand that creating content that connects with every audience may be difficult, so we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. We have identified potential co-production opportunities between our channels and Survivor is an excellent example of a successful joint project between two countries and two televisions from Serbia and Croatia.

The synergy we have at a personal level and the vast know-how within our corporation are the most significant benefits we have to offer in these types of collaborations.

United Media produces more than 40.000 hours of original content yearly. The CEO of your parent company – United Group – Victoriya Boklag recently commented in an interview that UG has a strong focus on local productions and new forms of content. Can you tell us what is United Media’s budget for content production and what type of content you focus on?

As previously mentioned, content creation is a crucial component of our company’s growth strategy. We allocate a significant portion of our budget towards producing content. We recognize the value of appealing to local audiences and their interests, which is why we continue to place a major emphasis on producing local content such as TV formats, series and movies.

Moreover, we are keenly aware of the need to cater to the distinctive preferences and consumption habits of younger generations. To that end, we are actively exploring and investing in innovative content forms that resonate with them. A significant aspect of this endavour lies in our investment in music production and distribution. We understand that music holds immense appeal for young audiences, and we are committed to creating and delivering music that speaks to their sensibilities. By leveraging cutting-edge techniques and collaborations with talented artists, we strive to offer a diverse range of musical experiences that captivate and engage this demographic.

We believe that our investment in creating diverse content not only enhances our reputation as a leading media company but also serves as a key differentiator in a highly competitive market.

Do you produce content specifically for your TV channels and digital media or also for international distribution as an additional source of monetization? 

While our content is primarily created for our TV channels and digital media platforms, we also create programming with the intention of selling it internationally. Our goal is to create content that resonates with audiences across borders, and we have been successful in doing so.

Our production series is well-known already. In addition to the fact that we have won numerous international awards, including the Audience Award at the Cannes Festival for the Awake series, it should be noted that we hosted the semi-final round of judging in the Telenovela category for the 50th International Emmy® Award last year.

What are your most popular titles in terms of international sales and what countries are interested in watching United Media-produced content?

Our catalog is very diverse, we have long-running romantic series that we distribute across CEE, LatAm and Middle East, but also crime and drama series that we sell to USA and elsewhere. In both cases we own the IP so sell ready-mades and formats. As an example, our Croatian family comedies (No Matter What, On the Border) are adapted in Greece, Slovakia, Hungary ect. And our award-winning crime dramas (Awake, The Hunt for Salamander) are sold to USA on Svod, Pay TV+ in CEE and with many more ongoing exciting discussions.

Our content is proven to work outside of our territories as we develop stories with universal values and invest a lot in their production.

United Media will be attending NATPE Budapest which is taking place June 19. -22 in the Hungarian capital. Tell us a little bit more about your acquisition strategy, what kind of content will UM be looking for? Will you also be offering partners your content and what are your highlights? 

All of our acquisition teams are attending markets across the world in order to find the best possible finished content. We work with both established studios and independent distributors, as we are buying for 40 channels in our portfolio. We are always on the lookout for a wide variety of content, including TV series, movies, documentaries, and more. We believe that offering a diverse range of content is essential to meeting the needs of our viewers and maintaining our competitive edge in the market.

Over the years, we’ve established strong relationships with our distribution partners, and we’re committed to strengthening those relationships even further, and Natpa is an excellent opportunity to do so.

Many CEE media companies claim international streaming services are not their competitors as they don’t offer original local content. What is United Media’s strategy in this respect? Do you consider Netflix, Amazon Prime Video competitors and do you have ambitions in the streaming market, in particular?

Of course, they are competition, especially in those parts of the world where viewers have limited paying ability and have to decide whether to subscribe to one of the large global streaming services or utilize one of the local possibilities. This creates a challenging environment for local providers, who have to fight to stay relevant, remain competitive and attract viewers. One strategy is to focus on producing original content that appeals to local audiences. By creating content that reflects the region’s unique culture and history, local providers can differentiate themselves from global services and attract customers who are interested in seeing stories from their own communities.

We chose that strategy for our content and are more focused on offering it through EON, a streaming platform built within the United Group and used in all markets. Our key strength lies in providing timely news, engaging talk shows, captivating local series, and entertaining local content. It is crucial for us to sustain the interest of young audiences in our homegrown content, despite the formidable competition posed by global giants in the industry.

As part of our evolving presence on streaming platforms, we will be expanding our VOD catalogs in the near future. This strategic direction aims to provide the audience with a broader selection of content, catering to a wide range of tastes and preferences. By enriching our offerings, we aim to enhance the streaming experience and solidify our presence in the digital entertainment landscape.

On the other side, we also have a partnership with the Amazon Prime platform, through which we offer some of our most popular series to viewers outside of SEE territory, such as Black Sun and Legacy.

United Media Network AG.

Marktgasse 2
8001 Zürich
REG# CHE-200.642.145
VAT# CHE-200.642.145 MWST


6, rue Jean Monnet, 2180 Luxembourg
Grand Duchy of Luxembourg