Feature | ETV 65: An insight into then and now with director Jüri Pihel

Jüri Pihel.
Jüri Pihel. Source: Kairit Leibold/ERR

Estonian National Television (ETV) is turning 65 today (July 19) and ERR News celebrated the occasion by interviewing the legendary director and producer Jüri Pihel.

Pihel first started working at ETV in 1986 after an internship as an assistant director. He was a producer of the Eurovision Song Contest from 1992 until 1997, during the first years Estonia competed in the international contest.

Pihel worked at ETV during a time when young people were trusted a lot. He quickly became the editor-in-chief of the Youth Program, which was a program made by the young for the young. Shortly after that, he became the program manager for entertainment shows.


Speaking about the time when he first started working at ETV, he said: "We didn't have money then, we did everything out of enthusiasm. Of course, sometimes we found some sponsors. But all this was done at on at a low cost. We had no technical capabilities. The whole camera park and studios were so primitive and old-fashioned. We were years behind the rest of the world."

At that time, Estonian Television was strongly influenced by the Finnish public broadcaster YLE. Pihel said YLE was professional and strong in every sense. It was very specific and domestically-focused, but they had a strong group of people there. "In a way, ETV was more international and influenced by other countries to a greater extent, so more approachable to foreigners," Pihel admitted.

The Finnish influence came primarily from the fact that Estonians could also sometimes watch Finnish TV channels. ETV's employees also watched YLE. 

The U.S. did not have a strong influence on the development of ETV at the time because there weren't many employees who could speak English working at the company. However, Hollywood movies later became very popular on commercial channels. Western television is built around cinema and radio, while in Estonia there has been a more newspaper-like format. "There was an experienced employee at the beginning of the 90s at ETV who said that Estonians will never watch Hollywood movies because they are unfamiliar to them. Then, they made it to the top of the charts," Pihel recalled.

In 1992, Pihel started working as the producer of the Eurovision Song Contest of Estonia. Sweden and other former Soviet Union countries suggested that Estonia should take part in the contest in 1992. Previously, Eurovision was considered something which would never be relatable in Estonia. Music in English was prohibited and 1986 was the first time music was played in English. 

"Of course we were on board [with the idea], we learned as we went along. We entered the battle like fools. However, I involved some professionals of the time. For example, I hired Jaak Joala who had a lot of experience with international song contests and performing," Pihel said.

The first directors at ETV were cinema directors. Pihel said the first people who worked there were extraordinarily talented and this kind of intelligence and talent hasn't been seen since. It was also because television was new and innovative and the audience knew the 20 most famous show hosts by heart.

"ETV was born on strange ground. It was a time of manipulating the audience and promoting communism. The current news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" was as communistic as it could be but people still read behind the lines," Pihel recalled. 


Pihel said everything, which was done when he worked there, had not been done before. The technical capability was weaker than the creative capability, now it's the other way around. "The growing phenomenon is a formality, I rarely see the will to engage or surprise the audience. There is also less substantive simplicity. Technology won't save the show host, he needs to be talented and competent."

Pihel said in the global context, ETV is unique because no other country as small as Estonia, which has a population of 1.3 million people, has so many channels in the national language. "We currently have about 40 channels in Estonian. I don't think any such small country has this abundance of choice. Television is not extinct. In the middle of it all, ETV looms very large, because it is the only channel which stands somewhere in the national memory. For other channels, the focus is blurred."

As for the strengths of ETV, Jüri Pihel gave examples of mutual culture, values, social culture and understanding. Since the beginning, ETV has broadcast a lot of nature shows and nature plays a big role in the hearts of Estonians. "Another important factor is a sense of belonging and the fact that everything is in Estonian - there we have great values and roots, which are very important."


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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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