Russian Television News: Owners and the Public

Article excerpt

Owners jockey for political advantage. The public spots bias.

It's election time in Russia again. This is when the Russian television industry experiences the greatest pressure and when the fragile but enormously important institution of information pluralism is most at risk.

That there is a genuine--though imperfect--pluralism on the national television networks is a profoundly important accomplishment of a badly flawed transition. There are no real guarantees of press pluralism in today's Russia, no watchdogs with teeth. There is only a wobbly market (much weakened by the August 1998 crash) that supports commercial stations competing with and challenging 'governmentally managed news. When the state and the private owners collude--as they did in support of Boris Yeltsin's 1996 presidential campaign--the competitive information market is powerfully undercut.

Television and Pluralism

First, a roadmap of the Russian television landscape. Four Moscow-based national networks, in order of popularity, dominate the market:

* ORT (Russian Public Television, Channel 1), heir to the largest Soviet-era station, is currently a public/ private hybrid (51 percent of its shares belong to the government) whose most prominent private investor (and real decision-maker) is Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky, one of Russia's richest new tycoons, parlayed a car dealership into huge wealth. A close friend of the Yeltsin family, he has served as secretary of the President's defense council and as coordinator of the organization linking former Soviet states.

* NTV, the biggest commercial station, reaches about 70 percent of the country and is owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, who rose from amateur theater impresario in Soviet times to founder of MOST bank, the chief source of capital for his media investments. Specializing in news, the station routinely sweeps news and public affairs awards. Its subsidiary, THT (TNT in Russia) is acquiring private stations in the provinces for a locally based network.

* RTR (Russian State Television, Channel 2), a state-owned and operated station, has almost total penetration but falling ratings and continual shifts of leadership.

* TV-6, the country's first commercial station, now has roughly 60 percent penetration and is building a news capacity. Berezovsky's recent purchase of a controlling interest gives him a commercial property that the government and Duma cannot so easily claim.

Across Russia, some 1,200 stations have acquired licenses to operate, and about half of these are on the air at the moment. Even so, the national networks absorb 83 to 85 percent of the prime-time audience. Especially during the frequent crises (e.g. the war in Chechnya, the August '98 crash) there is near-total dependence on the national networks.

Virtually every Russian household has at least one television set. However, despite attracting huge audiences, !the television industry has not escaped the devastating effects of the nation's 1998 economic crash. Since then, advertising revenues have fallen by 70 percent, and even the most competitive stations have been pushed into negative growth. Foreign programs became prohibitively expensive; staffs were downsized or not paid; advertising time was deeply discounted, and profits went up in smoke.

Though Direct Broadcast Satellite and cable are in the Russian market, over-the-air Moscow-based national networks are still what attract the lion's share of the viewing public. It is for this reason that control of television has become a hotly contested prize. The President and parliament battle over who calls the shots at Channels One and Two. So far, the content "monitoring councils" installed by Channels One and Two to propitiate the Communist-nationalist parliamentary majority have been desultory, ineffectual time-wasters, prompting new calls from the Duma for higher-level councils.

In the run-up to elections, the Russian government has restored the press ministry, which controls licensing. …