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In Russia, Independent YouTube Programming Lures Viewers Away from State TV

BY Natalia Antonova | Tuesday, March 19 2013

Screenshot from Russia's independent Dozhd TV

In Russia, state owned television's coverage of high profile cases and events has been losing credibility amongst educated, middle class viewers who see it as anodyne, patronizing or insufficiently critical. A notorious recent case of poor television reporting occurred with the prosecution of feminist collective punk band Pussy Riot. It was impossible to miss the strong difference between state-owned television’s coverage and analysis, versus the reporting offered by independent Russian programming on YouTube.

For readers unfamiliar with the story, Pussy Riot staged a “punk prayer” at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow last February, in a performance that included criticism of senior clergy for being too friendly with the Kremlin. The incident caused a national scandal, with three of the band’s members arrested and put on trial amidst a media circus. Two of the women, both young mothers, are now serving time in penal colonies.

Since the trial, many high-placed Russians have expressed distaste at how the entire Pussy Riot affair was handled. Oligarch Oleg Deripaska, for example, recently told the Financial Times that the trial was an exercise in "ass-covering." In other words, the judiciary staged a show trial in order to justify having detained the women for too long.

Perhaps the most infamous coverage of the Pussy Riot trial involved Rossiya-1's Arkady Mamontov, who devoted three special broadcasts to the all-woman punk group. Mamontov alleged various conspiracies, even claiming that exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a Putin opponent, was somehow involved in the punk prayer debacle (a good rule of thumb seems to be: When in doubt, blame Berezovsky!).  Mamontov made the laughable mistake of claiming that the pop star Madonna, who publicly supported Pussy Riot, was not actually named Madonna, saying, "I'm not going to pronounce that woman's silly nickname!" This obvious sloppiness would have made the entire show hilarious, if it hadn't been so depressingly one-sided.

But while Mamontov's specials were hotly debated and criticized by many of his peers, Rossiya-1's ratings, and ratings of state television in general, have remained strong in global terms. And so the government seems content with the quality of content on its television stations, as long viewers keep tuning in.

But state TV is actually losing momentum in a trend that seems set to continue. According to a May 2012 Vedomosti report, last year 19 million Russians logged on daily to Yandex, a popular local Internet portal that offers everything from an email platform to news and weather reports. A comparative 18 million sat down daily to watch Channel One, which has long been considered Russia's most popular and influential media resource. This 1 million person gap is a big symbolic shift. Television is not poised to disappear, but the effect of the Internet is to decentralize the power over media consumers that was formerly monopolized by state outlets.

It could be argued, of course, that a lot of Internet users visit Yandex to check the local weather and traffic reports, rather than turning to the portal for hard-hitting coverage of whatever criminal case is currently blowing up in the media. But Russian now has the biggest number of Internet users in Europe, with more and more getting online. So it seems likely that state television’s market share will continue to shrink.

Russian television is not a monolith. There are several state-owned stations, ranging in content and style from high culture to populist. But in general Russians routinely call TV "the zombie box," because it is widely believed to encourage complacency. And while state media is not officially censored in Russia, it is still expected to take its cues from the government. But in the absence of a definitive government ideology in the post-Soviet era, television executives often must guess when they might be crossing a line. This is why self-censorship is often considered prudent.

To go back to Pussy Riot for a moment, I would argue that when it came to coverage, Dozhd TV, an independent station, got it right.

Dozhd TV (link to its YouTube channel) is trying to fill the void in the independent programming sector at the moment, broadcasting on the Internet, satellite and cable. The channel presents a lively mix of politics and art, and bills itself as an outlet for "people who care" — which mostly means targeting middle class Russians, who want to be more active socially and politically, with content that offers real debate. When the Pussy Riot trial was going on, Dozhd gave significant airtime to the punk group's critics, including prominent clergymen and religious activists, as well as to their supporters in the art world and beyond.

Unlike Rossiya-1's Mamontov, Dozhd's hosts were not afraid of giving airtime to both sides. This adult attitude is exactly the kind of thing that attracts the middle class to Dozhd. They are tired of being patronized.

The need for a medium like Dozhd was made even more dramatically clear when controversy erupted over the Dima Yakovlev law recently. The law, which bans adoptions of Russian orphans by American parents, caused a great deal of debate in Russian media. On Dozhd, proponents of the law got a serious grilling — as should anyone who introduces tough new legislation.

More importantly, there was, once again, real debate. Irina Lakhova, a deputy for the ruling United Russia party and a supporter of the legislation, was able to debate on a live broadcast with Irina Prokhorova, a critic of the legislation who is a prominent philanthropist and sister of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov. Instead of the raised voices and pointed fingers so common on state TV's evening programs, there was an actual discussion. Russia's mature middle class viewers have grown weary of reactionary shows. They crave nuance, which Dozhd is only too happy to provide.

And the numbers prove that Dozhd is getting it right. According to a recent report compiled by Russian media analysts Lenta, within 6 months of its April 2011 launch Dozhd had 3 million monthly viewers subscribed to its cable packages alone. But this number does not include Internet subscribers. In urban Russia, most people watch Dozhd on their tablets and laptops.

Meanwhile, on state television, prominent journalist Vladimir Posner did offer criticism of the adoption law, but overall there was no real debate. Instead, there was a one-sided discussion about why the new legislation was largely a good thing.

Nevertheless, the government may be playing catch-up. Kontr TV, an independent Internet channel, debuted last December. Just a couple of months after the station launched, one of its co-founders, Anton Krasovsky, alleged that it was a creation of the Kremlin. Krasovsky left the channel after coming out as a gay man, just as the State Duma was pushing through a law banning "homosexual propaganda" to minors.

And NTV itself recently debuted a parody show that pokes gentle fun at Vladimir Putin. Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, assured the public that the president saw the program before it aired, but did not ask for any changes to be made.

Media content creators are gradually reaching the understanding that Russian media cannot remain stubbornly polarized for very long. The key to future success will be more diversification, less scripted content, more immediacy, and better entertainment. And given that Russia is one of YouTube's top 10 markets, it seems that Internet programming will play a significant and growing role in driving that diversification.

Indeed, I would argue that one of the biggest problems on state television in Russia is that it leans too heavily on aging and smug artists and producers, people who hit their stride 20 years ago and have been resting on their laurels ever since. One only has to look at the horrors of what passes for holiday programming around every New Year's Eve in Russia to see exactly what I mean — stale jokes, hardly any live music, plastic surgery gone wrong, buckets of glitter, and a deadness in the eyes.

I'll take YouTube over that any day.

Natalia Antonova is the acting editor in chief of The Moscow News.

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