Russian Television in the Era of Managed Media
Television has been through a revolution and back in the last three decades. We get the inside story from veteran TV critic Irina Petrovskaya.
By Michele A. Berdy
Moscow, 1979: You get home from a tiring day and turn on the TV. On one of the four channels is a rather boring class in French; you move on. On another is a Chekhov play filmed for TV. The third is showing a documentary about the agricultural successes in the “Virgin Lands.” You move on again until the fourth channel, where you settle down to watch a football match. At nine o’clock you watch the news on Channel One - Âðåìÿ (Time). The newscasters begin with a description of the “businesslike and productive” meeting between the General Secretary of the Communist Party and the President of India, followed by a series of reports of excellent harvests, increased industrial output, and the anniversary of an Esteemed Artist of the USSR. There are no crime stories, except for the occasional cautionary tale about a “speculator” who sewed scarves into dresses until he got caught and sentenced to a penal colony. There are no advertisements or flashy graphics. News from the West is bad, as usual: riots, famine, hunger, injustice. You might suspect that things aren’t quite as rosy in the USSR as they are portrayed (if the harvest was so good, why hasn’t there been a single carrot in the stores for the last three months?), but, then again, perhaps that’s just Moscow, and elsewhere the carrot situation is under control. In any case, you go back to watching your football game with a reassuring sense that all — or almost all — is right in your world. By midnight, the game and the broadcast day end.
That was Soviet television: total control of information, propaganda of the successes of the Soviet state and the failures of the capitalist world, and rather staid entertainment shows. But it was not all boring, and definitely not unprofessional. TV in the Soviet Union was made by well-trained people with a great deal of talent, expertise and experience — if limited opportunities. Series made then, like Ìåñòî âñòðå÷è èçìåíèòü íåëüçÿ (You can’t change the meeting place), Ñåìíàäöàòü Ìãíîâåíèé Âåñíû (Seventeen Moments in Spring) or Ñëåäñòâèå Âåäóò Çíàòîêè (The Investigation is Headed by Pros) still get high ratings when shown as reruns. They were masters at the difficult art of filming plays, ballets and concerts for television. And the variety shows were well-produced and performed, if as staid as the Ed Sullivan Show we in the US were watching at the time.
Soviet TV was transmitted through ground wires and then satellite transmission to virtually every home and hamlet in all eleven times zones and 16 republics. In addition to receiving central TV from Moscow, republican channels included local news and productions -— and sometimes had more freedom: Armenia had the privilege of showing Western films virtually every weekend (presumably to keep the pot of dissent from boiling over). Holiday variety shows were a treat, as was Easter: to keep people home and away from churches, the stations traditionally broadcast pop concerts or foreign films. And so it was, from year to year.
And then came glasnost.
The Golden Years
The Soviet media was quick to act on the policy of openness declared by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. In 1986 a series of space bridges with US audiences let Soviet viewers see an entirely new America — and a Soviet population with opinions that were far from uniform. News from around the Soviet Union was not so good after all: newscasters showed the failure of local bosses to get the crops off the fields before they rotted, dissent among leaders, poorly manufactured goods, roads and schools in criminal disrepair. Public affairs talk shows like Âçãëÿä (Viewpoint) kept viewers riveted to the TV on weekend nights with the young and hip hosts’ irreverent banter, interviews with scholars and political figures critical of the regime, and breaks for rock ‘n roll. At one point nearly 90 percent of the Soviet Union’s huge population was watching the show. And when the first Congress of People’s Deputies was aired live in 1989, it seemed that everyone was sitting in front of the TV in every home, in every office, in every store. Never before or again will television in Russia have such dedicated viewers and such a plethora of viewpoints, information, and political discussion.
Television was always an instrument of political power in the Soviet Union, and by the 1990s, before the break-up of the Soviet Union and in the troubled times afterwards, it continued to be a political battleground — complicated by commercial interests and big money. Channel Two was transferred to the Russian government and provided an anti-Soviet (and anti-Gorbachev) perspective. A bit later other private channels like TV-6, NTV and Ren-TV appeared. Hundreds of local channels — first with nothing more than a couple of VCRs and a transmission point — appeared in the provinces, showing a variety of local news, translated Western news broadcasts and pirated films. Advertising, music clips, and finally MTV hit the airwaves. Pensioners and housewives watched Santa Barbara with bated breath, game shows appeared, the first successful Russian serials were launched with the popular cop show Óëèöû Ðàçáèòûõ Ôîíàðåé (The Streets of Broken Streetlamps), while everyone continued to watch a range of talk shows and public affairs programming.
And then came the elections of 1993 and 1994. TV coverage blurred and then dissolved the line between those who made politics and those who reported on them: the stations backed Yeltsin, a decision that is still hotly debated today. Meanwhile, television business practices were a page out of “gangster capitalism”: huge amounts of money were made and lost, stations cried poverty and didn’t pay producers for months (while the parking lot at the TV center Ostankino continued to look like a luxury car dealership), reporters made cash by airing paid-for reports and Channel One director (and popular TV talk show host) Vlad Listev, was murdered, presumably over money.
Although in recent years business practices in the TV industry seem to be cleaner, Russian TV viewers have had less and less choice in news and information. Many of the most talented reporters at NTV jumped ship when the channel was taken over by Gasprom Media, and many more disappeared from the screens in the last few months. Although viewers could still see a difference during the Beslan tragedy (NTV was the only channel that provided live coverage, and its coverage afterwards continued to show what the other main channels did not), there is now little that distinguishes the nightly news on the three main channels. There is virtually no political debate. On the other hand, the airwaves are filled with a full range of entertainment fare, from domestic and imported series to game shows galore. This may reflect the mood in the country and more sophisticated research on viewer preferences, but it also may reflect changes in the attitudes and policies with regard to television among the powers that be.
“Who is to blame” for the television’s fall from the pinnacle of the Golden Years is the subject of endless arguments. It is still hard to judge how much the television industry was undermined by its own bad business practices, bad programming choices and bad policies (and to what extent those policies and choices, however unwise, were unavoidable or at least understandable); and how much it was undermined by a state that realized only too well (after the elections of 1993 and 1996) the power of this medium. Not all the evidence is in. In any case, by the 21st century, Russian TV had turned into something else: a hybrid of managed Soviet media and Western-style entertainment broadcasting.
How tight is state control over Russian TV? What is censorship, and what is self-censorship? What’s gone right and what’s gone wrong?
To get the inside story, PASSPORT sent Michele A. Berdy, who worked as a producer in Russian central and local TV in the 1990s, to talk to the expert: Irina Petrovskaya, a distinguished and fearlessly honest television critic who has been watching and writing about TV for over two decades. She has been the TV critic for such periodicals as Ogonyok, Obshchaya gazeta, and now Izvestiya, worked on TV as host of Channel Two’s Press Club, and is a member of the Russian Academy of Television Arts who took part in writing the recent declaration criticizing the current state of freedom of expression on TV. We caught up with her at the radio station Ekho Moskvy, where she does a weekly call-in show every Saturday.
PM How much is TV controlled?
Irina Petrovskaya at the Ekho Moskvy studio doing her live weekly radio show.
IP In about 2000 they decided in the Kremlin that the main central channels needed to be regulated. Now TV is a totally managed system. The other mass media are left as a “storefront window” so that when people in the West get upset about the lack of freedom of the press, they can say, “Here, take a look at this. Newspapers print whatever they want, Ekho Moskvy says whatever it wants.” But the newspapers have tiny print runs and Ekho Moskvy reaches maybe half a million listeners. Besides, I don’t think those guys are idiots; they realize that the liberals — what they call “the marginal population” — have to let off steam.
I don’t think anyone has really thought about the viewers who watch the news for a long time. They think about one viewer, or rather a dozen viewers in the Kremlin, who watch the news and report on it to their superior. As in the Soviet period, those people don’t just watch the news, they interpret it, and now, like then, high officials in the Kremlin are getting a distorted picture of what’s happening in the news media. It’s hard for me to say exactly who is doing it, but probably [Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration] Vladislav Surkov. Certainly there is an entire service that monitors TV 24 hours a day and reports on it in condensed and interpreted form.
PM What happened to the talk shows?
IP There are still “women’s” talk shows during the day, as well as various talk shows on general social issues, but the political talk shows that had once been the calling card of television stations have disappeared. Vladimir Pozner’s show Âðåìåíà (The Times) is more analytical or thematic than a political discussion, and besides, in Moscow we don’t see it live, we see it taped and after cuts. It’s funny that the shows go out live over satellite to areas beyond the Urals - it’s an old Soviet tradition, to show something live to part of Russia (or the Soviet Union), as if those citizens were different and it didn’t matter if they saw something uncensored. And then it’s shown in Moscow all cleaned up, since it’s in Moscow where the main viewer is, who has the power to make life miserable for the channel if something isn’t right.
The show Ñâîáîäà Ñëîâà (Freedom of Speech) was closed because it was uncontrolled territory. It was a place for those “marginals” - on the left and right - who didn’t support the Party Line. From the very start Shuster must have been regarded with suspicion, since he’s “not one of us” - he has a foreign passport. He worked at Radio Liberty then the old NTV, where they didn’t care where he was from. This was a case when they said “Either - or.” He had no choice but to leave the show and stay at the channel [heading the documentary department]. All he could do was make the best of a bad situation.
PM But without the political talk shows to let off steam, isn’t it a more unstable situation?
IP No, if you don’t talk about something, it doesn’t exist. Even Beslan: people have forgotten about it, about the children, about the horrendous situation with humanitarian aid… if you watch the news, the children have gone off to resorts, humanitarian aid has been delivered (not mentioning that no one has gotten it). It’s a policy of silence. If you don’t talk about it, it’s as if it doesn’t exist, and the viewers have the sense that everything is fine.
PM After awhile won’t people realize that things aren’t fine?
IP We have a strange population. People don’t want to hear about bad things, so this policy satisfies the population’s desire not to know. Why are deputies pushing those insane initiatives to ban violence from the television screen? Because people don’t want to see it. “We have a million problems of our own. If we have to look at all these problems, too, we’ll go crazy.” On the other hand, the policy of silence is ultimately stupid, because the current world (in contrast to the Soviet period) is far more varied in sources of information. During the Soviet era, the information blockade was so great, you could have had five Beslans and no one would have known about it. Or maybe ten people who managed to hear something over the jamming of the Voice of America would have known. Now newspapers write about it, there’s internet, and many people can watch foreign channels by cable.
Ultimately this is why it’s impossible to have a totalitarian regime again: it’s impossible to control and close down everything. Besides, what the West says is still important.
PM What is direct censorship and what is self-censorship?
IP Every so often the station chiefs are summoned to the Kremlin where, without outsiders, there is a talk about how things should be done and portrayed. But there’s no question that self-censorship is stronger than censorship. It’s highly developed among station heads, and they avoid things that might not have even occurred to the bosses in the Kremlin. There was a case when the channel cut the words of someone talking about the lack of press freedom — you just see his lips moving. No one ordered it: it was mid-level people being doubly careful.
PM What about the young reporters who are told, “No you can’t say that or show that?”
IP If they are young, they don’t remember or have associations with the Soviet period. On the other hand, they all had a chance to work in freer conditions, and now the conditions have changed. Unfortunately, they have no choice. There’s no other place to go: before they could have gone to the old NTV or TV-6, but now there’s no choice. They’re in a tough spot. They put up a fight at first, but now some of them are toeing the party line very diligently. And they’ve all forgotten that one regime will be replaced by another. These young people aren’t thinking about it, but when the situation changes again, they won’t have jobs.
In most cases they don’t seem to be suffering much; they simply do what they are told. In other cases they think it’s awful. They do it, but they talk about how awful it is. There’s still hope for them. They know they are doing something disgusting.
PM Why is there a spate of TV serials romanticizing law enforcement agencies?
IP Since everyone knows the president has a certain past in the special services, they are trying to anticipate his viewing preferences. But there are exceptions. The recent series Moscow Saga portrayed the KGB in the worst light. That shows that control is not total. Besides, people are honestly looking for a positive hero. For a long time the only hero on TV — negative or positive — was the gangster. We were living through a period of gangster capitalism. After awhile the public complained: people don’t want to see a gangster as a hero.
PM What has gotten better about TV in the last few years?
IP There is more diversification of shows for the audience — for women, for men, for the whole family. The best achievements of recent years are the series — they are well done, the budgets are decent, and they are using good scriptwriters, directors and actors. Now the business of television is cleaner in comparison to the 1990s. Plus the stations have learned to run their businesses as businesses — they are producing DVDs and cassettes for home viewing, as well as promoting their own programs.
Elena Yakovleva hosts the light-hearted talk show What Women Want.
In the regions there is also some good TV. In many places where the governors and mayors are opponents, different stations show different points of view. In that sense the viewers of local TV have more choice. And then there are some successful local stations, like Afontovo in Krasnoyarsk, Channel Four in Ekaterinburg, TV-2 in Tomsk — the quality of their programming is better than on the central stations. Or take Khanta-Mansisk, where they bought sophisticated equipment you can’t even find in Moscow, and made a series they could sell to the national channels.
PM What went wrong in the 1990s?
IP In part, the heads of the liberal channels thought that the ideas of democracy were so obvious that there was no need to do any education, explanation or promotion. And they screwed up,because the idea couldn’t be attractive to many people who lost a great deal during the reforms. If at the start of the 90s there was a huge energy of opposition to the communist regime, by 1993 things had returned to where they started, and people associated the communist regime with stability — maybe not affluent or free — but at least predictable. I think it was a huge mistake.
PM Is there a way to improve things?
IP You can be less afraid. Every time you make a concession, more are expected of you. The lesson the authorities learned when all of TV supported Yeltsin was that TV could be tamed and work for them. At the beginning of the 90s the authorities were afraid of the mass media; now the mass media are afraid of the authorities. All the station heads have a few skeletons in their closets; they have things they’d rather not remember; there are probably dossiers on all of them. But you can still work and not fear. People always ask if I’m afraid. I can’t say it’s nice to wonder if I’m going to have problems, but so far no one is making me do anything I don’t want to do. I’ll deal with problems when and if they arise.
PM So there is a choice?
IP In the end, everyone has a choice.