WARSAW — Who says TV news in Eastern Europe can't be fun?
Poland's smash TV hit of the year is an irreverent, witty news magazine called "Tele-express" that has shattered ratings records and has become the most watched show in the country.
At the same time, it is breaking down the traditional formula for Soviet Bloc news broadcasts, which are usually wooden, ceremonious and boring.
The fast-paced 15-minute program airs each afternoon at 5:15. It mixes hard and soft news with rock video clips, dramatic film footage and man-on-the-street interviews about such topics as love affairs and fashion.
"People are tuning in to us because they never know what they'll see next," said Jozef Wegrzyn, the show's 43-year-old creator and chief editor.
"Tele-express" was launched last June as part of an effort by the ruling Communist Party to make television more attractive to young viewers. Relying exclusively on announcers in their 20s and 30s who breathlessly read the day's stories from a studio resembling a newsroom, the show quickly caught on with young people. By late last year, its popularity had exploded.
In December, it passed the main evening TV news program, broadcast two hours later, as the top-rated show in Poland. By January, it was gaining an average of 300,000 new viewers a day.
Its popularity peaked Feb. 3 when 21 million people, an astounding 77% of the population, tuned in. "Tele-express" now has a regular audience of 17.6 million, although viewership frequently tops 20 million.
Its success has induced state broadcasting officials to liven up the party's primary vehicle for reaching the people--the main news show. This program occasionally runs light stories, such as a recent one about a dog that lives on the roof of its owners' house in Florida. It also has switched to a single announcer who is trying to appear more relaxed on camera.
" 'Tele-express' doesn't show councils, meetings or 'talking heads,' which is the beast of the main news," said one glowing review in Reporter magazine.
But "Tele-express" consistently goes beyond the boundaries of the more conservative main news in content as well as style.
In recent months, it broadcast video footage taken by Western news organizations of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov's return to Moscow from six years of internal exile and of Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's visit to a Roman Catholic Church in Riga. Neither was shown on the main news.
Interviewed in his spacious office at the state television studios, Wegrzyn said he believed the "Tele-express" approach is more in keeping with the greater political and cultural openness advocated by Gorbachev.
Although he is a Communist Party member, Wegrzyn said he gives the 27 young people who write and produce the show a great deal of freedom in what they put on the air.
The studio for "Tele-express" is a former conference room at the state TV building in downtown Warsaw. The show is taped with only one camera and two lights.
The room also serves as the show's editorial offices, and during the day it takes on the atmosphere of a student organization where ideas on what should appear on the program are informally discussed among the crew.
Those on the show say they are overwhelmed by its success.
"It's been the adventure of my life," said Wojciech Reszczynski, 34, the main announcer who last year was named the top new personality on Polish TV.