The 'News' or 'Times': What's in a TV Name?

Sometime just after the invasion of Chechnya, a strange thing happened on Channel One, official state television: The nightly news program suddenly readopted its Communist-era name.


For more than 25 years -- practically as long as Russians had had televisions -- the 9 P.M. news had been called Vremya, or Time. It had carried this name until 1991, when Channel One's news department, in the euphoria of the August coup, had abandoned the historic moniker.


Since then -- until a month ago, that is -- the Channel One news had been called simply Novosti (News). Now Vremya has returned.


Everyone is reading sinister plots into this change, and well they should. The government has made no secret of its desire to control the media, and Channel One, funded by the state, has complied.


But did the government force this linguistic change on the news staff?


Channel One's top news executive, Oleg Tochilin, says no. He insists instead that the news department -- which includes many of the same people who voted the name out three years ago -- was just tired of working on a show that had no name.


"What kind of a name is 'News'?" he said. "We just wanted a name, so we went back to Vremya."


This, of course, does not explain the lousy timing of the switch. At any other time it might have gone unnoticed, but not when the Kremlin was breathing the fire of war. This just looks like plain censorship.


Indeed, the renaming of the news program follows a pattern of quiet retreat to conservative language. Early last year, the media began referring to former Soviet republics by their Russian rather than their preferred national names. For example, Russian journalists dropped the awkward, but politically correct, Kyrgyzstan in favor of Russianized Kirgizia.


Channel One's news team could have chosen any other name: Independent Television has Segodnya (Today) and Itogi (Summary), while Russian television has Vesti (News). But instead they retrieved the title they once threw out.


"People are used to it," Tochilin said.


Perhaps.


But while the new Vremya touts the party line on Chechnya, it is not the old program it once was, in which elderly news readers in thick glasses recited dull reports. The new Vremya at least has some spunk. A news reader tells viewers in an official report that President Boris Yeltsin had a fruitful meeting with his human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov. But then an on-scene report shows Kovalyov telling cameras the opposite.


Changing names had little effect in the first place. Now bringing the old ones back does not necessarily portend a return to the communist past, but it does make you wonder.