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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: State Merits Low TV Rating




Going through Russian television ratings, it is impossible to miss one thing: RTR, the state television station that is the flagship of the new government-owned media holding, is not popular.


In a sample week, from June 1 to June 7, not a single RTR show made the top 10 programs list in Moscow, according to Gallup Media. The channel's three best-watched shows were movies; RTR's news program, Vesti, languished at the very bottom of the newscast rating chart.


For a company that reaches close to 99 percent of Russia's population and is now also affiliated with 88 regional television stations, which among them probably cover even the remaining 1 percent, this is pretty awful. Ratings like this are the equivalent of being booed off the air. But then the advantage of being state-owned is that this is not a threat.


The Western view of Russian media tends to demonize the tycoons who own most news outlets here, but in my view the state is a far worse media owner than any robber baron. Apart from distorting and censoring information, it also encourages thievery and bureaucracy in the media. These factors combined turn a media company into an unmitigated disaster.


VGTRK, the state media holding of which RTR is part, is now headed by Mikhail Shvydkoi, who has a reputation as an intellectual and a decent, fair man. It is a shame he inherited what he did.


Last month, when Shvydkoi's predecessor, Nikolai Svanidze, quit his job, he told the St. Petersburg newspaper Reklama-Shans: "I've had enough of being accused of all the failures and problems of the channel. ... For some reason, I was chosen as the trash can that everybody could spit in through the media."


Svanidze also said the company's staff no longer wanted him and he could not manage them. Svanidze's predecessor, Eduard Sagalayev, left the channel in 1996 after a number of staffers published an open letter accusing him of financial improprieties. It looks like whoever undertakes to run state television ends up with a management problem. It would be hard to imagine the head of a large private corporation whining upon his resignation. "I just couldn't control these people!" Such a manager would have a problem finding gainful employment. But state television chiefs are not your typical corporate executives: They do not run a business, they run a smokescreen.


Last year, the Federal Audit Chamber, Russia's budget watchdog body, discovered that in 1996, VGTRK misused 20 billion old rubles in budget funds. It also received $90 million in bonds from the government, but the securities never showed up on the company's books. The audit chamber found that VGTRK had 10 illegal accounts in foreign banks through which it was channeling money abroad. A further check showed that some VGTRK officials, including Sagalayev and Svanidze, were officers simultaneously in private companies to which VGTRK contributed funds and property, but from which the state media behemoth never received any dividends.


Yet the audit chamber never accused any VGTRK chiefs personally or recommen ded any harsh measures. The chamber's auditors, many of them with close ties to the leftist majority in the Russian parliament, remembered all too well what happened when they named names and recommended criminal proceedings after a check of state television in 1995.


President Boris Yeltsin then ordered the television company Ostankino closed and its assets transferred to ORT, the new semi-private station that was set up by business tycoons at the time. ORT is now controlled by magnate Boris Berezovsky, not by the state, and it's good at the ratings game.


The upshot is simple. People like Svanidze and Sagalayev are not held responsible for the chaos at RTR. They are just allowed to get on with their lives, which in Svanidze's case means anchoring two shows on RTR. The financial improprieties are likely to go on under Shvydkoi, too: It does not really matter who's boss, that is just the way the system works.


Something Shvydkoi might want to correct is the oppressive bureaucracy at RTR. According to Yelena Rykovtseva of the Sreda media journal, when the company was founded, the team that ran Vesti was subordinate to only four bosses: the RTR chief, the news broadcasting chief and his two deputies. Now the pyramid has increased to seven people.


But I suspect the new chief cannot do anything about that, either. State-owned organizations, after all, are designed to employ as many people as possible and to protect them from overworking.