Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Info Without Borders

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Honey, do you want to see the German film about Stalingrad or the American film about the Cuban Missile Crisis?" My wife, who grew up watching too many Soviet war films, didn't want to see either of them, so we went to see a Taiwanese film where warriors fly up walls and fight in the air.

This country does have problems with producing and distributing its own cultural products in this age of satellite broadcasting and high production costs. Russians — like people from most other countries — are right to worry that some of their national culture will get lost in the shuffle when the control of much informational and "cultural" programming is in the hands of multinational media conglomerates.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, cheap Western films and television shows flooded in, and people flocked to see a previously forbidden glimpse of the West. They didn't always like what they saw. One babushka I know detested the porn film "Caligula," just as my own mother would have. But my mother would never have paid to see the film and wouldn't have gone to it expecting to see the possible future of her country.

I'm no longer puzzled at what once seemed like Russian cultural arrogance. "America has such a superficial culture," many Russians have told me. Yes, much of the American "culture" you see on display here is terrible stuff, but please realize that much of it is the cheapest stuff that Russian promoters could find, the bottom of the barrel. Many of America's cultural riches are more difficult to package and export.

Click here to read our special report on the Struggle for Media-MOST.

Not all the effects of cheap Western cultural imports have been bad. For example, while I was trying to convince a policeman that he needed a warrant to enter my apartment at 11 p.m., he suddenly said, "I know, in America I couldn't come in without a warrant unless I heard shooting." Where did he get this rough outline of an American civil right? It could have only come from one of the American cop shows that are broadcast on Russian television.

Lately, a new discussion of American cultural imperialism has been touched off by Ted Turner's attempt to lead a consortium of investors in the purchase of a controlling share of embattled television channel NTV. The State Duma is even considering a bill that would prevent foreigners from owning more than half of any Russian media company. The law may be enforced retroactively and could affect Independent Media, the owner of The Moscow Times. One politician justified the proposed ownership limit by saying that all European countries limit foreign ownership of broadcasters.

This statement is partially true, but if you turn on the television in Europe you'll find that foreign channels usually outnumber local ones — that is, if the set is connected to a cable or a satellite dish, as most televisions soon will be. Restrictions on local broadcasters are becoming irrelevant. Foreign channels will enter by the least expensive method and will reach the majority of Russians this decade. Legislators can only delay the inevitable with the law.

The importance of satellite television in the NTV controversy has been overlooked by many people. The NTV Plus satellite cost about $200 million — a good chunk of Media-MOST's debt. It was launched following the 1998 financial crash in a reckless gamble by Media-MOST owner Vladimir Gusinsky. The satellite may still be worth $200 million, but not under Gusinsky's plan to market it only to high income customers. Satellite broadcasting is a high fixed-cost, low variable-cost business that requires high volume. The satellite can reach the large majority of Russian households with at least a dozen channels. The content of most of these channels will have to be from foreign producers since Russia doesn't have that many quality broadcasting channels.

Turner is playing his cards close to his chest, so nobody really knows what he is up to. According to one report, however, his $225 million bid could be divided up into $60 million to be paid for 30 percent of NTV, plus $165 million for other parts of Media-MOST. The $165 million could buy a big piece of the satellite.

Turner is certainly playing a strong hand. He is the only person involved in the NTV mess who knows how to profitably run a television station or a broadcast satellite. He is the only person willing to invest new money, and one of the few who has the trust of programming producers. He reportedly has a signed contract from Gusinsky allowing him — but not requiring him — to buy Gusinsky's shares. If the situation deteriorates, he can walk away without having spent a dime, and could probably return in six months to buy the ruins of NTV for a 10th of the current price.

Either Gazprom or the government could still stop Turner from gaining control of NTV, but this would only show that they were more interested in crushing NTV's independence than in making money. Turner's management skills will go a long way toward bringing in good quality programming and making the remnants of Media-MOST profitable.

Of course the government has the right to limit foreign ownership in broadcasting, just as Russians are right in turning up their noses at much of the Western "culture" that they've been offered. The real question, however, is whether this country is ready to join in the worldwide revolution in multiple-channel broadcasting, or will fight the impossible battle of trying to stop it.

Peter Ekman is professor of finance at the American Institute of Business and Economics, a Moscow based MBA program. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.