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Did people in socialist East Germany and Central Europe really watch Western television as casually as Westerners did, during the cold war? Were there laws against it? Were TV and radio receivers designed to block "enemy" broadcasts? How did the socialist governments handle the fact that people could see the wealth and freedom of the capitalist societies? Did the politicians really believe their own lies so much that they thought that allowing their enslaved population watching "degenerate" Western media would help their cause?

A Romanian friend tells me that it was the soap opera Dallas, with straight talking JR Ewing if you remember, that actually tore down the wall. Access to Western media seams to have had at least some effect in undermining socialist governments' authority.

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    Google Radio Free Europe for starters. As it is claimed that the broadcast of "Who Shot J.R.?" caused the Maasai in Kenya to delay their annual migration for two weeks, I see no reason why Dallas would not have been broadcast to Eastern Europe as well. – Pieter Geerkens May 7 '17 at 4:02
  • @Pieter Geerkens: Perhaps because the government wouldn't have allowed it? Even if there were satellite broadcasts, few could have afforded the ground equipment, even when it wasn't illegal. – jamesqf May 7 '17 at 5:07
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    @jamesqf: no satellite broadcasts at that time; just humongous over-powered broadcast towers.super-tuned east. – Pieter Geerkens May 7 '17 at 5:30
  • @PieterGeerkens, sat TV played a role in the last years before the German Reunification. – o.m. May 7 '17 at 6:14
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    I think you overestimate the quality of tv reception in those times. Color televisions was rare in Eastern Europe even in early 80s, and many country was anyway buying Western European films, tv programs, so receiving some very poor quality tv from Austria or West Germany wasn't shocking in the sense you describe it. The concern of the regimes were more about the western news and political commentary, not the soap operas – Greg May 11 '17 at 17:44
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It varied from country to country. Deep inside the Soviet Union they could not watch Western TV and the only access was shortwave broadcasts. You could easily listen short-wave broadcasts in European languages. There were special broadcasts in Russian (Voice of America, Free Europe, German wave, BBC and few others). Very many people actually listened these broadcasts. Short wave radios were common.

Since 1970s these broadcasts were jammed but the jamming was never really effective (though it was a nuisance for the listeners).

The situation closer to Western boundaries of the block was different: one could catch the TV broadcasts in many places (in Poland, for example German TV was possible to receive in many places), sometimes one had to use special antennas.

In the Western Ukraine, one could watch Polish TV in some places (and Polish TV was "Western" from the point of view of the Soviets: the censorship was very much weaker in Poland than in Soviet Union).

For this people built special antennas. These antennas were chased and removed by the authorities, but there was no punishment (at least I have never heard of someone punished for this). The antennas were removed on pretext that they spoil the look of the buildings. So people tried to hide them in the attics.

Reception in Lviv was poor and only available on hilltops. People would visit each other for an evening with Polish TV. Many people in Lviv knew enough of Polish language to watch TV and read newspapers.

  • +1 Listening to BBC or Voice of America in Moscow was painful - jamming was very effective. – sds May 8 '17 at 16:28
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    @sds: I remember this pain very well. But still we were able to listen. So the goal of the jamming was not achieved, and in this sense I called it non-effective. – Alex May 8 '17 at 18:09
  • @sds: Perhaps in Moscow jamming was stronger than in the Ukraine where I grew up. But in any case, any news would spread the next day by word of mouth. – Alex May 8 '17 at 18:26
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People in the German Democratic Republic could and did receive TV from the Federal Republic of Germany. Terrestrial reception of TV was limited in some parts of the GDR, notably the Dresden area. In the last years of the GDR there were even cases where Westfernsehen (western television) was provided by local cable providers. Obviously those were the regular western programming, not targeted broadcasts like those mentioned by Peter in his comment.

The GDR government tried to balance this with propaganda broadcasts towards their own citizens which aimed to discredit the Westfernsehen. They had some valid points, explaining how TV commercials don't represent "real life" in the West. Few GDR citizens believed everything their government said, but those TV shows injected some doubts.

So in the case of Germany:

  • GDR citizens were allowed to watch FRG television.
  • The GDR government was aware that this was a problem, but countermeasures like jamming were not practical.
  • They tried to counter it in their own propaganda.
  • In the end, Westfernsehen had a major role in how the Reunification did and did not work out (expectations of wealth, knowledge of each other).
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    explaining how TV commercials don't represent "real life" in the West, and for once, communist government actually spread the trurth with this one !! – Bregalad May 8 '17 at 18:32
  • @Bregalad, I've just seen a few of the old propaganda episodes, and they were rather over the top in their condemnation of the West. Opposite lies and not truth. – o.m. May 9 '17 at 4:53
  • Was it actually allowed to tune into western frequencies, or was it mostly condoned because they lacked the means to effectively combat it? To do the latter would have meant visiting every home and checking every car for what was tuned on the radio or television several times a day, not yet possible at the time (with the backdoors in modern "smart tvs" it would probably be feasible to do it remotely). – jwenting May 12 '17 at 11:25
  • @jwenting, it was illegal for police, soldiers, and similar functionaries, and at times it was officially discouraged to watch. But local administrations actively collaborated in providing Westfernsehen from centrally located, high-gain antennas. – o.m. May 12 '17 at 13:18
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I think no one mentioned: In western Europe TV channels were in PAL system, while Eastern Europe mostly adopted a version of SECAM. There were differences in the audio system, too.

From late 80s, satellite programs also became available in Eastern Europe. All you needed a satellite antenna, and you could watch MTV Europe, sky channel, etc, but years before the collapse of Berlin wall satellite channels could be watched through local networks in Hungary.

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When the Baltic states started to break out of the Soviet union it first started in Estonia because they could watch Finnish TV and Finnish and Estonian is linguistic close enough to be understandable.

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