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Russian TV
Text by Vladimir Kozlov

n recent years, Russia’s national television channels have offered viewers little original content, focusing primarily on the adaptation of successful imported formats. But, at least, until last fall, they generated huge advertising revenues, which allowed them to compensate for a lack of original ideas with expensive production. Now that the first “crisis” television season is beginning, viewers are to be subjected to a lot of reruns and very few new shows.

Many months after the global financial crisis hit Russia, TV audiences here still didn’t feel it, as shows aired by the country’s main national channels were commissioned and produced before most people began to realize that the crisis was “for real”. But when the time came for TV channels to buy and commission new programs, all of them felt short for cash, facing a substantial decline in ad revenues.

Figures may be different for different TV stations, but the common understanding in the industry is that an average TV station lost close to one half of its ad revenues in the first half of 2009, year on year, and there is no sign of improvement in sight. As a result, channels are cutting back film and TV series production, as well as purchases of foreign content and formats.

Among the first to fall prey to the crisis are foreign movies and TV series. With the exception of a few popular shows, like Lost, which has a sizeable fan base here, most foreign movies and TV series generate poor ratings, because people who wanted to watch them had already done so, using pirated DVDs. Hence bad ratings and advertisers’ declining interest in that kind of content.

Similarly uncertain is the fate of new domestic movies on television. Indirectly, financial problems of the main TV channels hit the domestic film industry, which in the pre-crisis years, heavily depended on cash from TV stations or selling TV rights, rather than box office performance. Channels that a year or two ago were actively investing in the production of theatrical movies, are now saying that they are no longer interested and would prefer to spend their depleted cash reserves on their main business, rather than pumping their cash into movie projects with unclear return prospects.

But that practice could backfire. In recent years, TV premiers of high-profile domestic theatrical releases generated decent ratings, and audiences got used to being able to see many new films just a few months within a theatrical release. As the number of domestic theatrical releases is dropping, and channels are becoming less and less interested in them, channels seem to have no choice other than re-running movies that people had already saw many times, with new films few and far between.

When it comes to in-house production, channels admit that they cancelled some of their projects in a bid to cut costs, providing little details of shows that would have been produced, had there been no crisis. Still, the pre-crisis trends clearly indicated that channels were more focused on attracting toplevel “stars” as show hosts, luring them with exorbitant fees, and spending money on expensive productions, rather than looking for creative and innovative ideas that would improve the ultimate quality of the product.

One example of where the domestic television was moving before the crisis hit, and where it could have been still moving now, is one the most controversial projects on Russian TV in recent years: the release of a colored version of the popular Soviet black and white TV series ‘Semnadtsat Mgnoveniy Vesny’ (Seventeen Moments of Spring), which was aired last May by the Rossiya channel.

The coloring of the 12-episode, 1973 series reportedly took several years, involving several hundred people, and cost several million dollars, still adding little to the original version’s visual side but, at the same time, stirring quite a bit of controversy. Many among the older generation of TV audiences were enraged, claiming that the coloring “distorted” the original story about Maksim Isayev, a Soviet spy operating in Nazi Germany. Other opponents of the projects argued that the idea of coloring the series was just dumb in itself, a typical one in a situation when you have money to burn but no creativity. Still, the heated discussion about the project did its job for the channel, bringing the colored version good ratings.

Another highlight of the 2009-2010 TV season in Russia was last May’s Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow. Again, the preparation of the show apparently involved huge amounts of money, making the event the most expensive Eurovision final ever, but there seemed to be much less creativity and innovation.

What are the main Russian channels’ programming strategies in a crisis time? There hardly seem to be any that go beyond cutting costs by producing and commissioning less new content. And, as a result, the season of 2009-2010 is likely to become the most boring one on domestic television in years.

In a situation like that, it’s vital for channels to keep audiences’ interest in shows that have been running for years, as there is no way to replace them with something new and equally profitable under present conditions. Sometimes, outside forces came into play, like in the case of the notorious youth reality show Dom-2 on the TNT channel.

In July, a Moscow court ruled that the show, which has been running for more than five years, often having to fence off criticism for allegedly harming young people’s moral grounds by promoting free love, ruled that Dom-2 is indeed harmful for young audiences and should therefore be only aired between 11pm and 4am. But while the channel is preparing an appeal, the show is where it used to be, and, thanks to the extensive media coverage of the controversy, its ratings were up again, and Dom-2 beat all the shows on other channels in the same 9-10pm time slot, according to data released by the TNS Russia TV audience research group. And despite rumors that the show will still be shut down for good this fall, most likely it’ll stay, but another court case will be needed quite soon to help keep audiences’ interested in the mundane day-to-day sex life of its participants.

Still, the crisis could also give channels new opportunities, as production costs of shows and TV series have also declined. Still, none of the main domestic TV channels seems to be willing to grab this opportunity of drastically changing their programming policies by giving room to less lavishly produced but more meaningful and interesting material. When asked about how they are dealing with the crisis situation and whether they have anything in mind to deal with it, other than “cost saving strategies,” most national channels refuse to talk. That, probably, says more than enough.

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