Crazy News Replaces NTV's Nightly News

Television viewers who tuned in to NTV on a recent Monday were in for a surprise.

Instead of the usual evening news featuring presidential meetings and prime ministerial visits, they saw a clip showing a man entering a supermarket naked. In another clip, a crow was being given wine from a plastic cup. A third piece showed two elderly women thrashing each other with shopping bags.

The motley collection of bizarre home videos lasted for 20 minutes. Then, finally came the news.

Touted by NTV as a roundup of crazy news every Monday to Thursday, the prime-time extravaganza is called "Mad Day" and precedes the news, which has had is starting time bumped back to 11 p.m. from 10:40 p.m.

"Mad Day" premiered on Oct. 13, roughly a month after the global liquidity crunch caught up with Russia, fueling suspicion that it might be an initiative to soften up viewers ahead of the relatively tame nightly news. The three main channels — Channel One, Rossia and NTV — have paid scant attention to Russia's financial crisis, both on their newscasts and other shows.

But in a sign that viewers remain unworried about the crisis, there has not been a revival in the popularity of shows featuring psychics, television analysts said.

NTV deputy CEO Alexander Nechayev denied that airing home videos under the banner of "crazy news" before the nightly news was an attempt to make the real news more palatable, saying the decision to push back the newscast had been made in April.

He described "Mad Day" as an experiment in using viewer-generated content to attract a younger audience, including active Internet users and YouTube fans.

"The huge amount of video that viewers have sent us already in the second week after the program's debut is evidence that the format has found an audience and has good prospects," said Nechayev, who also acts as NTV's head of programming.

But ratings figures present a different picture. The ratings for "Mad Days" steadily declined in the first week, with its audience share at 13 percent to 7.8 percent of all television viewers, according to Arina Borodina, a television critic with Kommersant.

Borodina lambasted the show, saying it leaves the impression that "drunk crows roam the cities and towns of our great nation, naked shoppers walk in stores, crosswalks lead nowhere, various metallic objects get stuck to girls and women and drunken Romeos hijack cars from the husbands of their beloved."

"It's amazing how the news hasn't gotten lost after this 20-minute trumpery," she wrote in a recent column.

In the past month, the news has been so unpleasant that the authorities might well wish it had gotten lost amid a flurry of talk shows and funny home videos. The main channels have either downgraded or ignored Russia's financial turmoil since it began in mid-September, focusing instead on the United States as the epicenter of the crisis.

The average Moscow audience share for both "Mad Day" and NTV's 11 p.m. newscast clocked in at a steady 10 percent from Oct. 13 to Oct. 22, according to figures compiled by TNS Russia, a television ratings agency.

None of the main television channels have plans to change their programming to include new programs that would give people tips on getting through the crisis. By contrast, some Western television stations are starting to respond. American lifestyle maven Martha Stewart, for example, has included a new money-saving segment on her show.

The possible effects of the global crisis have been raised on several Russian talk shows, but the channels might be slow in popularizing the issue because the government has not made a fundamental decision on how to handle or classify the situation, said Irina Tsurina, head of the analytical department at Propaganda, a public relations agency. "I don't think they have made up their minds completely," she said.

The government's official position is that Russia's macroeconomic indicators are sound and that the economy will continue to grow next year no matter what. "Russia hasn't yet been caught in this downward spiral and has a chance of avoiding it," President Dmitry Medvedev, referring to the global turmoil, said in a video blog entry posted on the Kremlin web site on Thursday.

Television executives seem to be toeing the official line. "First, one needs to see what will be the repercussions of the global financial crisis for Russians," said Nechayev of NTV. "If we sense an audience need, we'll surely respond to it."

The crisis, however, might eliminate the possibility of introducing new programs, said Alexander Kostyuk, director of TV audience research at TNS Russia. "Nobody is ready to invest into content. Nobody understands what will happen to the television market," he said.

Ignoring the crisis could be a missed opportunity to make money, because people appear to be losing faith in the banking system and could use financial advice. More than 40 percent of Russians are afraid of losing their bank accounts, according to a survey released by state-controlled VTsIOM on Thursday. No comparative figures were given.

On the bright side, media analysts said they have yet to see a spike in interest in television shows about the paranormal. Many Russians who saw their savings wiped out during the chaotic 1990s turned to the paranormal, and psychics of all stripes were all the rage on television.

But not now. "There is no feeling of a global crisis yet," said Tsurina, of Propaganda.