Inside Television: Murder and Machinations

Television is the world of daydreams, of accessible pleasures. At night, the windows of whole city blocks glimmer with the pale blue light of countless TV sets, glinting like the shards of rotten wood in swamps that beckon accidental travelers to their death.

Television today is the empire of daydreams described in George Orwell's novel "1984" where people are run by the televisions present in every apartment and permanently switched on. Orwell's television is the Ministry of Truth. On Russian television, all six channels aspire to the honor of being Orwell's Ministry of Truth.

"It was only with the creation of NTV [a few years ago] that the line was finally drawn between the broadcaster and the producer," says NTV president Igor Malashenko. Today Russia's channels, owners of the airwaves, buy programs from producers and broadcast them. Programs on state-owned channels are paid for by the state and some advertising, the rest depend on advertising alone.

Otherwise, the mode of operation in this empire is like that in any multimillion-dollar industry. All crimes connected with television have to do with this mode of operation ? the appropriation of part, or all, of the money changing hands. The crimes become scandals because of the famous faces involved. And because television is the one mass medium left in Russia now that newspaper circulations have plumeted.

"We are sure that sooner or later NTV will have a channel all to itself. I have always thought that the other part of our channel [the state-owned Russian Universities] was used ineffectively," says Malashenko, making no secret of his own ambitions and his desire to control state property. Malashenko recently appealed to President Boris Yeltsin to transfer this property to him. Much the same thing is going at Channel One, now the property of ORT. A financial review has revealed that "in forming ORT's authorized fund, state interests were damaged: In violation of government regulations, commercial structures bought not 49, but 50 percent of the stock." In other words, the government does not have complete control over ORT policy and program content. This suggests that ORT's recent refusal to go on paying producer Ren-TV for the news show "Versii" (Versions) and its cancellation of Monday night's "Meeting with Alexander Solzhenitsyn" may have had more to do with money than censorship.

This past August, the ORT management unanimously approved a program called "A Poet in Russia Is More Than a Poet" consisting of 52 half-hour installments to begin airing this month. But then, says poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the program was struck from the fall schedule. Ren-TV, the program's producer, lost a huge amount of money as a result. "Can you imagine [ORT] doing that to the poetry of [the late TV interviewer and game show host] Vladislav Listyev, who, evidently, was killed because he didn't want to allow business interests and advertising to strangle culture on the blue screen?" Yevtushenko exclaims rhetorically.

While Listyev was alive, ORT bought packages of programs from independent producers at whatever price they named. On the other hand, Listyev refused to run the ads being foisted on ORT by Reklama-Holding, the tone of which was set by the Premier SV ad agency, cofounded by Sergei Lisovsky.

An audit of ORT has revealed that most of its productions were bought from a handful of private companies created, for the most part, by people who used to run divisions of Ostankino, ORT's predecessor. As a rule, ORT bought the programs produced by these companies for top dollar. In January of this year, for instance, ORT paid $60,000 a pop for the weekly game show "Polye Chudes" and $17,500 for the Larry-King-Live-style interview show "Chas Pik" while its own in-house programs cost between 9 million and 24 million rubles ($2,000 and $5,300) to produce.

Since Listyev's death and the arrival of ORT general producer Konstantin Ernst, that privileged circle of producers is no longer so privileged. The one company whose productions continue to get the best slots on Channel One is VID. VID president Alexander Lyubimov explains: "They are the broadcasters, and it's their right to decide what they buy and for how much. ORT shows VID programs -- "Polye Chudes," "Tema," "Chas Pik" -- at prime time. I don't understand why, for example, the game show "Proshche Prostogo" is any worse. Maybe because the price is high, or maybe because it's not produced by VID. Konstantin Ernst used to work at VID."

With the exception of the game show "Polye Chudes," none of the other VID programs are worth watching: They are morally antiquated, their hosts are unprofessional, their content banal. They have outlived their time, which is perfectly natural and, in fact, what happens to most programs. VID programs owe their popularity to the fact that they are shown at prime time on the national channel with the largest audience.

"Ugadai Melodiyu" (Name That Tune), for instance, is on six nights a week. Host Valdis Pelsh is a talented musician but totally incompetent before the camera. He reads the names of participants from cue cards. The program's pace is so frenetic, there's never the time to make an entrance, to depart from the script, to draw the participants out. It's all so much abracadabra, but it's on all the time, so people watch it.

Meanwhile the ORT reject, "Versii," has gone to NTV. Will this improve things for the independent channel? I doubt it. As it is, NTV is jammed with political programs, all of the same type. This may be why Ma-lashenko complains about a lack of airtime. He is sandwiched between the political puppet satire "Kukli" and feature films. Is the Russian Universities channel -- which NTV would like to take over -- a good thing? Well, it's something different. That's not bad.

"Whose side are you on, masters of mass culture?" asks Yevtushenko. But these days the real masters of mass culture are the advertisers without whom no television channel could survive. Since Listyev's death, Sergei Lisovsky (head of the Premier SV ad agency) has been put in charge of all advertising on ORT. Thus Lisovsky stands to become his own best customer.

Now that ORT has achieved quasi-independence from the state and created a production company, Telegrafika, as well as a powerful ad division, it can afford to pass on the high-priced programs (like "Versii") of outside producers. Those independent producers will have to peddle their products to the remaining five channels and the ruthless battle for airtime will escalate. Likewise the financial machinations behind the scenes. Let's hope there are no more casualties.

Alexander Shatalov is a poet, journalist and editor- in-chief of Glagol publishing house. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.