Santa Barbara is Real

1998 > Russia

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

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.