Russia, December 23, 1998
The idiot box crossed the pond and is attacking the Russian soul!
The true Evil Empire is here is Russia. Not the communists, not the Chechens, but the television! Until 1991, TV was a rarity here with three stations in back & white. Luckily for the Russian culture, it was not exciting enough to replace conversation and community. All that changed in the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Now there are six major channels in Moscow, all in brilliant color, showing programming 20 hours a day. The programming is interesting in an odd way. Most of the movies are old Russian flicks in black & white. I enjoy watching them to try and improve my Russian. All the series are American, usually soaps like Dynasty, Santa Barbara, and Dallas, with heavy Russian dubbing. Strangely enough, many Russians think that America is just like those soaps. I have seen hairstyles copied straight from Santa Barbara, with reports of weddings done as exact copies of the big Dallas wedding. I can't wait to see what happens if the Brady Bunch comes over here!
There are several programs that are derived from American shows, but taken to the next step. There is a "Cops" show here, but it focuses on car wrecks, with closeups of the dead bodies. Another show actually challenges local drivers to "steal" a car. If they are able to make it a certain distance or time without being caught by the police, they can keep the car. Yes, actual police car chases, rammings, and accidents occur, all in the name of good sport and 15 seconds of fame! There are a few odd game shows, with the one where a couple compete against each other in a strip-Double Dare format being the most popular. Nothing like getting slimed when you are in bikini briefs on national television!
Past the six Russian channels (four of which are only in Moscow), there is Kosmos TV. This is the satellite TV network most of the expats have so we can get English language programming, not that it is any better. There are 20 stations, eight of which are in French, German, or Spanish. Watching the European channels convinces me that Europeans have been inbreeding a bit too long.
Americans will be happy to note that we get CNN, TNT Movies, and NBC, though it is European NBC, a bit different than the American model. My housemate, Arthur, loves TNT Movies, watching them all day long. Personally my favorite channel is OFF.
St. Petersburg Times December 29, 1998
On the box, down the tubes for '98 TV
By Barnaby Thompson
IN taking it upon myself to review the world of Russian television in 1998, I am confident that many readers will heartily disagree with most, if not all, of my choices. So I am going to chicken out even before I start by inviting readers to submit their most popular and most hated programs in the almost certainly vain hope that Russia's television executives will sit up and take note. What follows, therefore, is mostly intended to spark fierce debate and furious controversy over how the squared-eyed section of the population enjoys wasting its spare time, and thus improve the quality of what will clog our airwaves over the next twelve months. For 1998, ladies and gents, was not a good year.
From a purely local point of view, Channel 5, St. Petersburg's only outlet that broadcast nationally, was passed in 1997 by President Boris Yeltsin from federal to local control, and replaced nationally by the new Kultura channel, available everywhere in the country but here. In August, over 1,500 employees were sacked from Channel 5 as the station was privatized, receiving a new name, Peterburg, and a new management comprising City Hall, the Leningrad Oblast and three banks, at least one of which is tied so closely to the governor that neither can cook breakfast without the other. As one local lawmaker put it, "Bureaucrats should not be allowed to make autonomous decisions on matters of selling state property."
THAT was the good news. The bad news was, well, the news. With elections to the Legislative Assembly looming in December, the channel became a weapon in the battle for St. Petersburg's potential audience of 5 million viewers. And when the rival Channel 11 dared to criticize the machinations of City Hall, the latter teamed up with the Tax Police, the Security Services and the Prosecutor General's Office to raid the offending station's offices, deny it access to its transmitter, wage a press campaign and arrest its director (this time Dmitry Roz hdes t ven sky).
And so to the airwaves themselves. What exactly, above and beyond all the political shenanigans, did Russian television programmers see fit to present?
Perhaps the most controversial decision in the history of Russian television came in late November, when RTR was forced temporarily to pull the plug on Russia's favorite soap opera, "Santa Barbara." This provoked an uproar amongst the good women of Moscow, who protested the decision with a demonstration outside the offices of the state-owned television station.
Now, I have seen "Santa Barbara" on three different continents, and while this never-ending tale of love, lust and intrigue has thus far never forced me to cancel so much as a dental appointment, it does indeed have an avid global following. From Cruz, the unsmiling, steely-eyed private detective with a jaw you could use to tunnel to Magnitogorsk, to C.K., the polygamous patriarch with so many offspring he has to write their names down on the back of his hand, the characters spin out an often unbelievable plot with a certain panache. Rally on, babushki: Do you prefer the old Mason or the new?
In fact, an enormous amount of air time is taken up by imported Western soaps. Two of them, "Melrose Place" and "Beverly Hills, 90210" have proved so popular over the last twelve months that in both cases NTV Independent Television saw fit to run to the end of the series and start all over again - twice, in the case of Beverly Hills. (The most fascinating aspect of this was the opportunity to see Luke "Dylan" Perry's manly stubble shoot back into his face at the end of the series and start growing all over again.)
BUT whatever happened to promised "Maroseika 12," the Russian series about sex, crime and intrigue that took its name from the address the Tax Inspectorate's Moscow headquarters and targeted tax-evading Russians? Due to start airing in this December, the eager viewing public has not heard a peep about it since RTR unveiled production plans for the 16-series soap last March.
A similar fate has also befallen "Se±ora," the first Russian-made soap opera (also with a Latin American theme) that Lenfilm was due to start releasing in early 1999. Given the near-liquidation of Lenfilm, the realization of "Se±ora" looks about as distant as the lush plantations of Argentina.
So it was left to the smallish THT Broadcasting Network's "Ulitsa Razbitikh Fonarei" ("The Boulevard of Broken Streetlights") to fly the home flag, which it did rather well in a low-budget kind of way. A branch of Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST group, THT brought "Broken Streetlights" to airwaves in January and won almost instant detective-thriller success with the program and boosted its formerly faceless actors to star status.
SPEAKING of domestic products, over the years Russians have managed to produce various gameshows - staple televisual diet of any country, anywhere - which are either fascinating or revolting. I recommend ORT's "Pole Chudes" ("Field of Miracles,") for example, as an excellent weight-loss therapy, although its compere, Leonid Yakubovich, has made quite decent film appearances. "Ugadai Melodiyu" ("Name That Tune") on ORT Public Television should be renamed "Name That Idiotic Costume," but it must be said that emcee Valdis Pelsh lacks nothing in professionalism - although his pop video to the tune of his show was truly horrendous. "Chto? Gde? Kogda?" ("What? Where? When?") - the intellectuals versus members of the public battle-of-wits contest, also on ORT - however, is strangely compelling, partly because a consistently victorious team stands to make a pile of cash, while the weeping losers never appear on the show again.
YEVGENY Kiselyov and NTV's "Itogi" ("Summary") have continued to lead the field of political analysis programs - which hasn't been too hard this year, since much of the competition is pretty stale. One need only look at the decline of Channel 11's "Sobytiye" ("Events") to understand the point. The main event of the year for men like the mustachioed Kiselyov, however, has been the open feud with the Communist Party. On the eve of the Nov. 7 anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Communist Duma Deputy Alexander Kuvayev singled out Kiselyov and other commentators and accused them of "collaboration with the regime in its crimes against society." The TV bosses countered by saying the Party was "outside the ethical laws of the civilized world." And the battle continues...
But while Kiselyov has been sporting his mustache on the box for years, another TV strongman has been less fortunate: Housewives' favorite Sergei Dorenko - the one with the subsonic drawl and the heavy eyelids - was pulled from his job anchoring ORT's nightly "Vremya" after only three months. But longevity is not Dorenko's forte. Throughout his long career he has worked for ORT, NTV, RTR, TV6 and Ren TV (amongst others) and has never stayed in one spot for more than two years.
But at last it befalls me to nominate the best and worst of 1998. TV 6's "Dezhurnaya Chast" - that untranslatable cop show in which a documentary-type cameraman shadows Russia's fearless law enforcers - got on my nerves more than once for its voyeurism masquerading as on-the-spot journalism. "Russky Boi" ("Russian Fight-out") - which takes the "Gladiators" formula and pumped in extra testosterone, pitting city police forces against OMON - was the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen with a remote control in my hand. A passing index finger should be waved at the television companies who either ignore or slavishly copy each other's schedules, with the result that "Terminator" has been on about six times this year.
ON THE other hand, I shall miss Regional TV's crisis-victim "Tele magazin" ("Teleshopping") terribly, selling moronic gadgets like the Buttmaster and the Sticky Roller flogged at vast expense to gullible New Russians. The irreverent NTV's "Segodnyachko" ("Today") and its eccentric crew have brought cheer to many a gloomy night, even if I didn't always understand what those who phoned in were talking about. "Kukly" (NTV's version of Britain's political spoof show "Spitting Image") is usually a bit of a mystery to non-Russians, but I did enjoy their excellent adaptation of Hamlet.
But for the so-bad-it's-good accolade, my vote goes to RTR's sad, tired and aging "Sam Sebe Rezhissyor" ("Be Your Own Director"), whose occasional snippets of homemade merriment cannot compensate for listening to the name of the sponsors thirty-eight times a minute, and the pathetically boxy car offered as the star prize. I am assured that this used to be good entertainment. They should have quit while they were ahead.