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VLADIMIR ZELEZNY CLANDESTINE BROADCASTER MOVES TO PRIVATE TV OPERATOR

By Published on .

PRAGUE- Vladimi Zlezny 48, spent 30 years cranking out highly successful TV programs in his native Czechoslovakia-but nobody knew it.

Now emerging from obscurity, Mr. Zlezny is basking in the limelight as general director of Nova, the Czech Republic's first private national TV station, which started airing this month. The TV executive has had to work incognito for most of career because he was blacklisted by the Communists as a result of his opposition to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

"This is my second attempt at independent television," said Mr. Zelezny, referring to state TV's move toward autonomy just prior to the Soviet occupation. "I hope this time it will not be so rudely interrupted."

At 23, after five years as a writer and producer at what was then known as Czechoslovak TV, following his graduation from Charles University, vocal opposition to Soviet dominance set the stage for the next 25 years of Mr. Zelezny's life.

"On Aug. 21, 1968, in the early morning, I was one of three persons who started clandestine TV broadcasts," he recalls.

The broadcasts lasted until the trio were discovered by the Soviets, arrested and within days released. After a few more secret broadcasts, he was forced to flee, and escaped to the U.K. that same year.

But after six months in exile working for the Associated Press in London, he returned. That's when his secret life began as the unidentified writer of 300 scripts for Slovak TV, another state channel, a job he kept until the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.

"I think a heroic past is heroic only when you look back on it," he reflects today.

In the year since being awarded the Nova license in January 1993, Mr. ÉeleznË has been busy expanding his staff from one person (himself) to 285 and obtaining and producing programming. With this, he is preparing to give Czech viewers their first taste of fast-paced, modern programs after a diet of staid state TV and very old movies.

This ambitious effort keeps the nattily dressed Mr. Zelezny on a harried schedule of back-to-back meetings with advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble, Henkel and the like.

He also meets with representatives from Hollywood studios selling popular feature length films and Turner Broadcasting's Cable News Network, which has guaranteed Nova exclusivity in airing CNN news in the country.

Although most of Mr. Zelezny's work has been and will continue to be behind the camera, he is no stranger to seeing himself on film. As a student protester, he was filmed by the Communists speaking before a crowd on the street, but those scenes were used in a propaganda film justifying the Soviet occupation.

When the overthrow of the Communists finally came in 1989, Mr. Zelezny took a brief detour from TV to serve as official spokesman of the Civic Forum, the opposition party led by dissident Vaclav Havel, now Czech president. The party defeated the Communist party in the country's first free elections. After the victory, Mr. Zelezny became spokesman and senior advisor to then-Czech Prime Minister Petr Pithart.

It was when Mr. Pithart lost the position as prime minister that Mr. Zelezny started putting together a TV revolution.

Even now, Mr. ÉeleznË sees his biggest challenge as fighting against still-entrenched Communist thinking embodied at times in monolithic state-run Czech Television. He has recently drawn the ire of the ad community by lobbying to restrict the amount of advertising Czech TV is allowed to air because the station already gets $64 million a year in TV license fees. The government is now considering legislation that would do just that.

"You can't compete against subsidized competition," Mr. Zelezny said of Czech TV.

A self-described intellectual, Mr. Zelezny said the "non-intellectual medium" of TV fascinates him because of its power. And his busy schedule doesn't allow time for anything except his work and spending some time with his wife Marta, who heads the Franz Kafka (historical) Society, and his two young sons.

"I like TV because it's instant," he notes, "it's immediate, it's omnipresent-the ability to be on the moon one day and in Australia the next is remarkable."

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