Television Is a Time Suck

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.