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Aleksandra Subotić, United Media CEO: The most important thing is not to give up

20th June, 2024

“It is crucial to be flexible and open to changes, to continuously learn and adapt to new circumstances”, United Media CEO Aleksandra Subotić shared in her interview for Business Info Group’s special edition “Who’s Who – successful business women in Serbia”. She also talked about the media situation in the country, TV advertising market, challenges and innovations in the business, as well as about the strategy that allows United Media to be one step ahead.

How has your career developed, from your beginnings in business to your current position at United Media?

I started my career in the content distribution and telecommunications sector back in 1997, joining a company that specialized in the installation of satellite dishes. Noticing the potential brought by the appearance of cable operators on the market, which enabled easier distribution of TV channels to end users, I engaged in the construction of a cable network, and I can say that this period actually made it possible for me to understand the dynamics of supply and demand in this sector.

The next professional step was to work on the development of the distribution network of the DTH platform Total TV in the ex-Yu diaspora in the markets of Western Europe. With the expansion of the availability of the Internet as a means of distribution, the possibility of transmitting content through OTT platforms has emerged. Since 2008, I have been actively working on the conceptual development of one such platform, Nettv Plus, focusing on sales models and positioning in the markets of Europe and North America.

When United Group decided to consolidate its media operations under the United Media brand in 2013, I was appointed as the executive director, and I am still in this position. In the past 11 years, our media business has expanded, we have become one of the leading media companies in Southeast Europe with 120 media outlets, including 60 television channels. We operate in eight countries and currently employ more than 4,200 people.

How do you assess the situation in the media in Serbia today?

The Reporters Without Borders recently published the latest report on the state of media freedom, pointing out that the situation in Serbia was at its lowest level in the last 22 years since they started to conduct the rankings. I must agree with this. Not only is the situation alarming, but the continuous trend of worsening the situation from year to year is of additional concern. The key problem lies in the fact that the media in Serbia do not fulfill their basic mission – they do not inform the citizens but are exclusively at the service of the government and the ruling party.

Large television stations with a national frequency, which are closely connected to the ruling structures, control information according to the narrative that the government wants to impose on society. For such behavior they are often rewarded with various forms of privileges and cooperation. There are open campaigns against independent media and journalists from the highest state level. This results in numerous insults, threats and attacks that are becoming more frequent. As a company, we have repeatedly alerted the domestic and international public about this. In the past year alone, more than 40 cases of attacks and threats against journalists working for United Media in Serbia have been recorded, which is unacceptable.

When we analyze the media scene itself, we witness that Telekom’s portfolio of channels, including those that present themselves as independent, also serves the political goals of the government. In return, they receive huge financial resources and record incredible losses – only the Arena channels operate with a loss of 60 million euros per year. So, we have a state operator whose goal is to, at any cost, by using state resources, destroy the competition – the private company SBB, just because it offers citizens the independent United Media channels – N1 and Nova. These two channels, although of limited reach, have a significant influence in society because they have positioned themselves as media where citizens can hear objective information and which they trust.

In addition to this whole situation, a new law on media has been adopted, which has legalized the previously illegal actions of Telekom Srbija to achieve ownership in the media, which shows us the government’s determination that it has no intention of ensuring media freedom and media pluralism. There is only an illusion of a rich media scene and choice, but in fact we are witnessing that the truth is hardly heard here.

Are you going to continue the fight for a national frequency in Serbia? What are your expectations?

Yes. For our part, we will do everything we can because the content produced by Nova television in Serbia, as well as the complete TV programme schedules are in every respect an offer that deserves a national frequency. However, we are not optimistic that there will be major upheavals and that the government will agree to let the truth be heard, at least not with this REM composition. We have a paradoxical situation where the body, which should be independent, is proud of its bias. We have filed a lawsuit against REM for failure to issue a decision on the granting of a national license, and it has not been acted upon yet.

How to establish a balance between editorial policy and “indulging” the audience’s taste and the advertiser’s expectation?

This presents a challenge, but we believe that if everyone in the system does their part professionally, success will not be absent. When we talk about the editorial policy of editorial staff, things are very clear. Through the work of our media, we have always been dedicated to professional, objective, impartial and independent journalism, and in this regard, the editorial boards independently decide on topics and methods of reporting. Our editorial board, which meets in Luxembourg, is composed of leading foreign experts proven in their work. When it comes to entertainment programme, there are teams of professionals that determine the content to be produced, purchased, and broadcast. They do this based on extensive media experience, guided by market research data and viewers’ wishes, but also in accordance with United Media standards.

Such quality content is at the disposal of sales teams to monetize it best.

At our company, the editorial and sales teams are strictly separated, so the sales team cannot influence, regardless of the advertisers’ expectations. This is a more difficult way, but the only possible and long-term justified one. In every situation we try to promote a professional approach and we are very proud of that.

In Serbia, we are faced with another situation, public enterprises are not allowed to spend their marketing budgets on media that are not at the will of the government. This practice puts independent media in an unfair position, and it is a way of putting pressure on them. In the case of smaller media, such behavior can create an atmosphere of self-censorship and possibly lead to journalists and editors avoiding critical reporting for fear of losing financial support or pressure from political or corporate parties.

What challenges do new technologies bring to media platforms like United Media? In the sea of innovations, how do you assess what needs to be implemented in business at what moment?

One of the key challenges generally is managing the rapid pace of changes and ever-evolving technology trends. It is important to follow them and identify those innovations that fit our long-term goals, that have the potential to improve our business and secure a leadership position in the market. Our advantage as a large corporation lies in the resources we have at our disposal. With numerous experienced and expert teams working on different aspects of our business, we have the opportunity to evaluate the best solutions and implement them effectively. As we operate in multiple countries, it is crucial to align strategies and initiatives based on the specific needs and characteristics of each market.

Although it is still the dominant form of advertising, especially in Serbia, the TV advertising market is facing rapid changes in people’s habits, such as the increasingly frequent use of options such as catch-up TV, video on demand… In which direction will this form of advertising develop in the future?

We certainly expect that this form of advertising will evolve in accordance with the needs of modern consumers – regardless of whether there will be more emphasis on targeted advertising, interactive ad formats, it is certain that strategies will be adapted to the specific preferences and behavior of viewers. What we do know is that video content remains a constant, regardless of how the user will consume it. The curiosity of the markets where we operate is represented by the fact that the consumption of linear content is still very high, even slightly increasing. Thus, in Serbia, from 5 hours and 15 minutes a day, the average viewership of live and as live content increased to 5 hours 42 minutes in 2024, which is significantly higher than the world average.

It is crucial that media platforms adapt to changes in demand and consumption patterns, but at the same time take advantage of the opportunities this market segment offers.

On the other hand, global streaming services are getting increasingly popular. Will they become dominant in the market or will television itself change and adapt?

Streaming services are getting increasingly popular due to their flexibility, personalization and the wide range of content they offer. However, this does not necessarily mean that television will lose its importance, instead of being seen as a rival, television is getting increasingly integrated with streaming services.

The key element that attracts and retains an audience regardless of the distribution method is quality content. We have witnessed that during some important events, our TV stations record exceptional viewership of live broadcasts. The trust we have gained is of great importance. Viewers will always look for content that intrigues, informs, inspires or entertains them. This is exactly where we see our advantage – United Media is committed to producing high-quality content in all the countries in which we operate, and the audience recognizes and appreciates this. Not only when it comes to news and sports content, but also serial and film programs that we develop within United Media Studios, and numerous entertainment formats, be it licensed or our original ones.

United Media produces its content, programs, series… What guides you in creating content in the local markets of the countries in which you operate?

Several factors. First, we analyze the market – audience preferences and needs, viewership trends, potential for monetization… We try to understand all the specifics and needs of each individual country to ensure that the program we produce has value for viewers and is as successful as possible. At the same time, we strive to always improve the offer by bringing innovative and high-quality content to the market before the competition, which is a strategy that allows us to be one step ahead.

Is the investment in the production of series and films worth it? At one time, Telekom Srbija dictated hyperproduction, but this seems to have been significantly reduced.

It certainly depends on the television and the type of series being produced. Unfortunately, for local markets, high-quality production of premium series is a very challenging task for monetization, but this is what makes the difference in the market. We have opted for quality and not quantity and we are very proud of the realization of valuable projects such as the “Black Sun”, “Time of Evil” and “Time of Death”. Some of these projects have also been successfully marketed on the international market, such as the series “Pure Love” and “Devil’s Throat”. When we talk about some other markets, for example in Croatia, where we are present with Nova television, which is the most watched commercial television in the country, the production of series pays off, especially if they achieve high ratings and create a connection with viewers. I think the series “On the Border”, “No Matter What”, “Best Men” are examples of very successful projects.

What content will you focus on producing in the future?

In Serbia, we are very satisfied with the results that our channels have and the content with which they achieve them, and in the first place with their own production. We remain consistent with quality informative programs, entertainment formats, sports and film content. As I have already mentioned, we do not make any hasty decisions without a detailed analysis. The program teams are there to consider the success and possibilities of each individual format and we trust their decision. The production of content for digital exploitation and distribution in all respects is also something we are constantly focused on.

As a successful businesswoman in the media sphere, what were the main challenges you faced during your career and what lessons did you learn from those experiences?

One of the main challenges has been to constantly adapt to the rapid changes in the media industry, including technological innovations, changes in consumer habits and a dynamic competitive environment. Additionally, we have faced challenges arising from complex political, economic and regulatory factors in the countries where we do business, the challenges brought to us all by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine… I have learned important lessons from those experiences. I have realized that it is crucial to be flexible and open to changes, to continuously learn and adapt to new circumstances. I have also learned the importance of building strong teams – everyone in the organization must work and be accountable for their part of the work, that is the only way things can improve professionally.

The most important thing is not to give up, but to use each of these challenges as an opportunity for personal and professional development.

Have you had a problem in some period of your life to establish a balance between your private and business life?

Fortunately, I didn’t, I have never clearly established that division, everyone who knows me and has had the opportunity to work with me, knows how much I enjoy and love the work I do. Work is my driving force. It is very nice to spend time with the right team, to whom I am very grateful in every segment, and in the end be fulfilled and satisfied.

Women who are in the public environment, especially journalists, are often exposed to sexist and misogynistic insults because of their views. How do we fight against gender discrimination and prejudice in the business environment and in society in general?

In general, the solution lies in education – the education of society, on the one hand, to recognize and harshly condemn sexist and misogynist attitudes, but also the education and empowerment of women, on the other hand. Thus, they will have the opportunity to express themselves freely and have equal opportunities for progress and professional development. I am proud that women make up 60% of senior management positions at United Media. I would say that we can show by our own example that there is no place for any kind of discrimination in our environment, whether private or business.