Russia, November 26, 1998
You think people watch the Brady Bunch over here?Thursday, November 26, 1998 The Moscow Times
Santa Barbara "Matter of National Security"
By Andrei Zolotov Jr.
Times are hard in Russia. People go unpaid for months at a time, pensions are late, and contract killings rock the nation with alarming regularity. But the middle-aged women who gathered outside the offices of the state-owned RTR television station Wednesday had something much more important on their minds: Theirs and the nation's favorite soap opera, the U.S.-made "Santa Barbara," has been taken off the air and they want it back.
There were only a handful of women protesting outside the Television station, but their modest numbers belie the enormous impact the show has had on Russia's cultural life since it first appeared on Russian television screens four years ago. Viewing statistics show that the daily melodrama of passion, love triangles, sinister crimes, treachery, betrayal and big hair set in the California resort is consistently Russia's most popular television show, with about 7 percent of the Russian population tuning in every evening to watch.
RTR regards the soap opera as a "matter of national security," executive director Anton Ziatopolsky said in an interview Wednesday, and when it was forced off the air due to a lack of funds, station executives brought the matter up with government ministers. The show will be back on the air next week, but television executives' fear that after March they may have to pull the plug on the program again unless they get an injection of cash.
Television critics and highbrow viewers may laugh at Russia's obsession with the show. But for hardened "Santa Barbara" fans, it is a deadly serious issue. The series, they say, is an important distraction from the gloom of their daily lives. "When they stopped showing it, we, the simple people, felt a personal loss. The characters have become like family members," said Anna Chernyayeya, a journalist in charge of the soap opera section of the tabloid weekly Express Gazeta.
Earlier this year Chernyayeva's newspaper offered readers a trip to the real Santa Barbara if they answered esoteric questions about the series. Some sent their entries in the form of color albums with photographs and drawings. Another woman sent in a piece of fabric embroidered with palm trees and the words: "Santa Barbara - the town of my dreams." Valentina Ltinyova, one of the protesters Wednesday, said she had lost her job as an engineer and survives on a pension of 400 rubles ($22) a month. "Santa Barbara" is a "safety valve for my soul" she said. "I keep myself going with it and do not pay attention to the crisis."
While the rest of the nation mourned the death of parliament member Galina Starovoitova on Tuesday, Lunyova was busy celebrating the birthday of actor Roscoe Bourne, who plays the part of Robert Barr in the series. Lunyova got together with her fellow 'Santa Barbara" fail Lidia, who is lucky enough to own a VCR, so they could watch recorded episodes of the show while having a little party. The series' stars make regular visits to Russia. Lane Davis, who used to play the part of Mason, was met by ecstatic audiences during his tour here earlier this year and, according to Lunyova, has said that he would not have dropped out of the show if he had known flow much admiration he had earned in this country. "We have no money, but we know how to love our favorite actors," Lunyova said.
Russia's economic crisis has sent the advertising revenue of Russian television companies plummeting by tip to 80 percent. RTR, which even before the crisis was short of cash, found itself earlier this month unable to buy and dub into Russian the next batch of "Santa Barbara" episodes. For the first two weeks of November, the station had to rerun the old series, and since Nov. 16, the show has been replaced with another soap opera. The station was soon bombarded with letters and telephone calls from angry viewers.
Executives at RTR were concerned. Santa Barbara," said executive director Ziatopoisky, is a "very serious issue." Ziatopoisky said that a new batch as purchased from Fox Entertainment Group earlier this month and will start running next week. He could not say how much was pal id for the latest batch, but he said that VGTRK - the giant government television conglomerate that runs RTR had to cut back in many departments in order to find the necessary cash. "All the other payments, including telephone bills and payroll, were stopped in order to squeeze out the money for 'Santa Barbara,' Ziatopolsky said.
But it could be a brief respite. The situation with advertising revenues and government subsidies is unlikely to resolve itself by March, when payment for the next batch of the soap opera is due. "We should be prepared," Zlatopolsky said. The protesters picketing the RTR offices Wednesday are relieved that the show is soon to be back on the air. Nevertheless, they feel the station has betrayed their trust. RTR originally announced that the show had been taken off "for technical reasons" - a euphemism that could mean almost anything in Russia.
"We don't want it to be like in communist times, when they [television bosses] knew better than we did what to show us," Lunyova said.