Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Decree Is a Retreat With Honor

Just occasionally, there is more honor in retreat than in going forward, and President Boris Yeltsin's decision to drop the idea of merging the two state television stations is one of those occasions.


The president had announced nearly two weeks ago, to general dismay, that he planned to merge Channel One, Ostankino, and Channel Two, Russian Television and Radio, into a single company. The proposal was widely interpreted as an attempt to cement his already considerable control over the airwaves ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.


The outcry was immediate, as even Yeltsin's habitual allies demurred at such a blatantly autocratic move that would have done nothing to solve state television's very real crisis in programming and finance.


But on Tuesday Yeltsin met with Alexander Yakovlev, the Ostankino chairman who was one of the founding fathers of the glasnost campaign in the Soviet media, and the result was a smart about-face. Not only did Yeltsin agree not to merge the two companies, but he also offered 49 percent of Ostankino up for privatization.


Much battered and tarnished already, the president's democratic credentials have been somewhat restored. True, the state is to keep a controlling 51 percent share in the former Soviet television behemoth that is Ostankino. But such substantial private involvement will make it considerably more difficult to keep television as slavishly obedient to the powers that be as it is now.


Equally important, with private investors watching the bottom line, it will only be a question of time before Ostankino undergoes the thorough restructuring that it so desperately needs. There is probably no other way to tackle the chronic overstaffing and general inefficiency from which the broadcasting giant's own managers acknowledge that it suffers.


Yeltsin's new proposal also would have the benefit of relieving the state of a large portion of the financial burden that it still carries for television.


Yakovlev released only the haziest details of his discussion after meeting Yeltsin, and the presidential decree to privatize Ostankino leaves most questions unanswered about the station's fate, other than that its name and status are to have changed by Feb. 1. But the mere fact that Yeltsin gave up on his plan to centralize control over Russia's only two nationwide television channels is cause for celebration.


After all, if there has been one success story on Russia's small screen since 1991 it is NTV, by now the most informative and reliable source of television news in the country. And that success -- won by former state employees -- has been nourished entirely by private money and private initiative.