was the largest and the culturally predominant republic of the U.S.S.R.,
and the history of Russian television up to the disintegration of
that country in 1991 is inseparable from that of Soviet television.
Moreover, in spite of the changes that have taken place since then,
Russian television remains the principal inheritor of the traditions
(as well as the properties) of its Soviet predecessor.
television broadcasting began in Moscow in 1939, though the service
was interrupted for the duration of WWII (1941-1945). Broadcasting
was always given a high priority by the Soviet authorities, and
television expanded rapidly in the post-war years, so that by the
late 1970s there were two general channels that could be received
over most of the country and two further channels (one local and
one educational) in certain large cities. There were also television
stations in the constituent republics and studios in most large
cities. Apart from a gradual extension of the coverage of the two
national channels until the first, at least, could be received in
virtually the whole of the country, this situation remained little
changed until 1991. Because of its size the Soviet Union was a pioneer
of satellite transmission: by the mid-1980s both national channels
were broadcast in four time-shifted variants to eastern parts of
the country, while the first channel was among the earliest television
programmes to be made available world-wide. Regular colour transmissions
began in 1967, using the SECAM system.
television was the responsibility of the All-Union Committee for
Television and Radio (generally known as Gosteleradio), the Chairman
of which was a member of the Council of Ministers and of the Central
Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. Equivalent committees existed
in the constituent republics, with the exception, owing to a quirk
of the system, of Russia itself. Only in May 1991, after sustained
pressure from the Russian parliament, did a separate Russian oganisation
start its own television transmissions; its programmes, broadcast
for six hours per day on the second channel, were in the summer
of that year a focus of opposition to President Gorbachev. Broadcasting
was financed out of the state budget, the receiving licence having
been replaced in 1962 by a notional addition to the retail price
of television sets.
social, political and economic upheavals that accompanied the collapse
of the Soviet system have led to major changes in Russian television.
The period since 1991 has been characterised by a rapid growth of
commercialisation and a continuing debate concerning the rôle of
the state in owning, financing and controlling the content of the
electronic media. There has also been continuous disagreement between
the executive and legislative branches of power over which of them
should exercise control over broadcasting. Up to now this has invariably
been resolved in favour of the former, and the entire structure
of Russian television has in effect been put into place by a series
of Presidential decrees.
aspect of the involvement of the state in television is the Federal
Service for Television and Radio, a regulatory body with relatively
few powers, whose principal function is to issue licences to broadcasting
organisations. There are in addition two broadcasting companies
wholly owned by the state: the All-Russian State Television and
Radio Company (RTR), the organisation founded in 1991, and "Peterburg--piatyj
kanal" ("St Petersburg--the fifth channel"), converted into a state
company in 1993. A third state company, Ostankino, which was created
out of the former Gosteleradio when the Soviet Union disintegrated,
was abolished in 1995. Its functions were taken over by "Obshchestvennoe
rossiiskoe televidenie" ("Russian Public Television", ORT), owned
51% by the state and 49% by a consortium of banks and private companies.
ORT produces its own news bulletins, but otherwise is essentially
a commissioning company. Publicly-owned broadcasting organisations
continue to exist in each of the regions of Russia. The proliferation
of state companies and the rapid inflation from 1992 onwards has
meant that allocations from the state budget have covered an ever
smaller proportion of the costs of these companies: for both ORT
and RTR this had declined to 25% by 1995. The shortfall is made
up by revenue from advertising.
the commercial sector two companies, NTV and TV6, aspire to national
coverage, though at present their programmes can be seen in certain
large cities only; both commenced operations in 1993. There are
also several hundred local stations, and cable television has started
to appear in certain large cities. There has been little or no foreign
investment in Russian television; CNN were involved in TV6 when
it started up, but subsequently withdrew from the operation. NTV
is owned by a consortium of banks which also owns the daily newspaper
Segodnia and the main television listings journal Sem' dnei and
can be said to be part of Russia's first media conglomerate. An
interesting feature is the growth of independent production companies,
the oldest of which, ViD and ATV, date back to 1990, when they were
"semi-detached" outgrowths of Gosteleradio. These now provide programmes
for the various broadcasting companies, especially ORT and NTV.
changes since 1991 have had an equally profound effect on programmes
and their content. In Soviet times television was first and foremost
an instrument of propaganda, serving the interests of party and
state, and this purpose was reflected in all news bulletins and
political programmes. The main evening news programme, Vremia (Time)
was shown simultaneously on all channels and often ran far beyond
its allotted forty minutes (a cavalier attitude towards the published
schedules is characteristic of both Soviet and Russian television).
All programmes were in effect, if not formally subject to censorship,
and caution usually prevailed: the popular student cabaret KVN was
taken off the air in the 1970s for being too daring, and a high
proportion of the non-political programmes consisted of high culture
(opera, ballet and classical drama), films made for the Soviet cinema
and sport, all of which could be guaranteed in advance to be inoffensive.
of its importance as a means of propaganda, the effects of glasnost'
were felt more slowly in television than in the print media. By
the late 1980s, however, a certain liberalisation could be discerned:
KVN returned to the screens, and previously taboo topics began to
be discussed in programmes such as Vzgliad (View) and Do
i posle polunochi (Before and After Midnight). These were followed
by a range of lively and innovatory productions originated by ATV
(see above), as well as by attempts to liven up news presentation,
though as late as 1990-91 all of these programmes were liable to
suffer cuts imposed by the censors or even to disappear altogether;
the suspension of Vzgliad in January 1991 was a particular
cause célèbre. In the circumstances it is not surprising that the
removal of all restrictions after the collapse of the August 1991
putsch led to a brief flowering of creative talent (and the emergence
of long-forbidden programmes) that may prove to have been something
of a golden age of Russian television.
1990s have seen a gradual westernisation of Russian television with
the appearance of genres hitherto eschewed. Among these are game-shows,
such as Pole chudes (Field of Miracles), which is based on
Wheel of Fortune and which is one of Ostankino/ORT's most
popular programmes; talk-shows, such as Tema (Theme) and My (We),
which likewise have clear ancestral links with their American counterparts,
and soap operas. These are almost invariably imported from the U.S.
(Santa Barbara), Mexico (Los Ricos también lloran, Simplemente
María and others), Brazil and elsewhere; home-grown versions
have been few in number and short-lived. A number of British and
U.S. crime series have also been imported, for example The Sweeny
and Moonlighting. One genre to which Russian television has remained
immune is situation comedy, though in the area of satire it is worth
mentioning NTV's Kukly (Puppets), which uses the format of
the British Spitting Image and which has occasionally succeeded
in annoying the authorities. Films made in the U.S. and other Western
countries are now widely shown, though in 1995-96, presumably in
response to complaints from viewers, there has been a marked increase
in the number of Russian/Soviet films being broadcast. Religious
programmes of various types, most connected with the Russian Orthodox
Church, but some originating with certain strands of western Protestantism,
are now transmitted, but literature, classical music and serious
drama have disappeared almost totally from the screens.
This westernisation has by no means met with universal approval,
though it is not only a reaction to Soviet isolationism, but also
a response to commercial pressures. All channels are now dependent
on income from advertising, and while the relationship between audience
ratings and the prices charged for advertisements is not as sophisticated
as in the West, there is a requirement to show programmes which
will attract viewers. Advertising is lightly regulated and takes
many forms, including spots between and during programmes and sponsorship.
It tends to be unpopular, partly because of the unfamiliar intrusiveness,
but mainly because a high proportion of the advertisements are for
foreign goods which are not widely available or (especially in 1992-94)
for disreputable financial institutions which subsequently collapsed.
Nevertheless, while some companies prefer to re-cycle advertisements
previously used in their older markets, the best Russian-produced
examples of the form will bear comparison with anything shown in
the West. A noteworthy, even notorious example is the sequence of
advertisements produced in 1994 for the now-defunct MMM, which featured
the fictional Lionia Golubkov and his "family". The rapid growth
of advertising has led to widespread allegations of corruption,
particularly in connection with Ostankino/ORT, and the murkier side
of Russian television received prominence in March 1995 with the
still unsolved murder of Vladislav List'ev, originator and presenter
of several popular programmes and Director-General-designate of
pressures have not entirely succeeded in supplanting political pressures,
though the latter are incomparably subtler than in Soviet times.
Nevertheless, in both areas the long-established Soviet practice
of "telephone law" (whereby a person in power uses that instrument
to convey his or her wishes/instructions) continues to prevail.
Ostankino and its successor ORT have had a reputation for being
"pro-presidential", but this is principally due to the perceived
slant of their news coverage. Indeed, certain programmes produced
for these channels by independent production companies have been
accused, somewhat contradictorily, of giving opponents of the President
too much air time, and it is generally considered that the demagogic
nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovskii largely owes his political career
to television. In general, state-owned companies (including and
perhaps especially ORT) are more likely to come under political
pressures, particularly during periods of heightened tension, such
as the run-up to elections, while commercial companies retain more
freedom of manoeuvre. One of the principal concerns of NTV has been
to build up a reputation for independence and lack of bias in its
outside observer can occasionally discern signs of the growth of
informal power networks involving politicians and businessmen with
media interests, and this development, together with the subtle
combination of public and private patronage and political and commercial
pressures, suggests that post-Soviet television in Russia may end
up following most closely the French or Italian patterns, albeit
that there is no evidence that anyone has deliberately set out to
achieve this result. If, however, the reaction against all forms
of westernisation which became noticeable in the mid-1990s continues,
there may well be a partial retreat towards Soviet models, although
any "re-sovietisation" of Russian television, with its implied enhancement
of the rôle of the state, will inevitably encounter serious financial
obstacles. Whatever happens, it is difficult to see how television
in Russia can escape the effects of that country's continuing political
and economic instability.
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"A Pot of Boiling Milk." Rusistika (Rugby, U.K.), December
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USSR Today. London: MacMillan, in association with The School
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McNair, Brian. Glasnost, Perestroika and the Soviet Media.
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