Russian television is like a person who has been cured of one disease only to immediately develop another, much more serious illness. The New Year's broadcasts are just one spectacular example of this.
The amount of television channels currently available in Russia is impressive, especially to those who remember the meager Soviet era offerings.
The recent quantitative achievements of Russian television are obvious and undeniable. Its programming diversity is another matter. This past holiday season, for instance, all national channels treated their audiences to the same assortment of acts, performed by the same pop singers and stand-up comedians. The hosts attempted to convince the viewers that the performers were the nation's best-loved artists because of their "great talent." The "favorites" included the veteran Soviet-era crooners Alla Pugacheva, Sophia Rotaru and Valery Leontiev as well as the ubiquitous Maxim Galkin, a major media personality of the post-Soviet Russia. Along with other engagements, Mr. Galkin, 27, hosts two TV game shows, one which is a Russian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" "I'd love to try something else, but I don't want to come across as someone with indiscriminate taste," confessed the young celebrity. He was given the title "Showman of the Year" in 2003.
The prevalence of entertainment in television is expected on holidays. However, Russian television looks as if every day were a holiday. Many of the channels broadcast around-the-clock, entertaining their audiences with a never-ending string of soap operas, game shows, stunt shows, cooking shows, and music videos. Konstantin Ernst, chief executive of ORT (a national television heavyweight), explains that today's light-mindedness of Russian TV reflects its ability to feel and cater to society's needs.
Russian audiences do not want to watch celebral movies or informative programs. Otherwise, mainstream broadcasters would not have shifted serious programs from primetime to the early morning. A few weeks ago, one channel ventured to run Franco Zeffireli's most recent feature, "Callas Forever," but would not air it until after midnight. Television critics responded the following morning with reproaches for what they saw as disrespect for quality artwork and discerning viewers.
Movie reviews on Russian television are few, and most of them lack competence. The small number of quality motion pictures released in Russia in the post-Soviet decade may be part of the reason for this. The situation in Russia's movie industry seems to be improving; several domestic productions were given prestigious international awards last year. Nevertheless, television is still behind.
Luckily, not everything currently on Russian television is bad. Quality movies including prize-winning features, such as Alexander Rogozhkin's "Cuckoo" and Valery Todorovsky's "Love" are aired occasionally. These movies, however, cannot compare in popularity to foreign and local television series. One, excellent recently released series is Vladimir Bortko's "The Idiot," which is based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel of the same name. The film premiered last spring on RTR channel. Later in the year, a series about the antics of a rural policeman hit premiered. This simplistic story appealed to the masses more than Dostoyevsky's deep insights into human psychology. It outranked every other film series broadcast in Russia last year.
The Kultura channel, unlike the rest, broadcasts remains, with its careful selection of arts highlights and its competent, thoughtful commentary.
Russian broadcasters may have discredited themselves as providers of low-class entertainment, but they still want to be taken seriously in their news coverage. Several major networks vie for the national spotlight, offering news programs with on-the-ground reporting, expert analysis, and articulate presentation. Unfortunately, news stories often contain video images of violence and human suffering. Psychologists find this trend alarming.
Crude naturalism is not unique to news broadcasts. Russian reality shows, modeled after the Western originals, also seek to show life as it is, exposing the most brutal as well as the most intimate. Incredibly popular at the start, these shows now seem to be losing popularity with local audiences.
"We want to make our television more interactive, and therefore are increasing the production of shows that could prompt instant viewer feedback," says Mr. Ernst, citing the example of "Star Factory," a Pop Idle-type talent show run by ORT.
On the positive side, sports and children's programs are back on air. RTR television is particularly attentive to children's needs. As for sporting events, they receive extensive coverage on almost every major Russian network. Plus, there is a relatively new all-sports channel.
Television advertisements continue to be the principal cause of annoyance for most viewers. But,revenue from the advertising funds television.