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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NTV Tamer but Remains No Puppet

The channel looks the same. The graphics, program names and theme music remain unchanged. Even the famous puppets are still around, but careful viewers can tell that NTV television is different.

Take the puppets. For years, they were the symbol of NTV's irreverence, skewering the powerful every week with the wickedly funny satire show called "Kukly." Many believe President Vladimir Putin's pique at the puppet representing him on Sunday nights helped lead to the decision to take over NTV.

More than two months after the country's only major independent network fell into the hands of state-controlled Gazprom, the puppets still poke fun at Moscow's mighty, but Putin escapes the barbs.

Putin insists he had nothing to do with the seizure of NTV by Gazprom, but he can be happy with the results. NTV has become a tamer, less in-your-face broadcast that rarely airs much direct criticism of Putin.

NTV hasn't acted as a tool of the government either. Its newscasts still cover the burning issues of the day, including the Chechnya story on which the old NTV made its mark, and opposition leaders are regularly shown taking issue with the Kremlin or various ministers, though not with Putin himself.

"Some share of opposition remains," said Maria Zheleznova, who monitors and writes about television for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "The channel doesn't completely take state positions. It will still maintain its right to come up with something unexpected — but not rude or tough or pushy."

NTV content has great meaning because until April 14 it was the dominant source of independent news. The other two big networks, ORT and RTR, are owned or run by the state. It routinely exposed the horrors of the two wars in Chechnya, focused attention on the problems of ordinary Russians and unflinchingly aired allegations of corruption at the highest echelons of power.

When Gazprom staged a hostile takeover this spring, Yevgeny Kiselyov and others bolted to second-tier TV6 to try to build a new independent network. General director Boris Jordan, a Russian-American investment banker, has promised not to take direction from the state.

Ratings by the Gallup organization show viewership has dropped off significantly since the NTV takeover. The 7 p.m. newscast has fallen from a 19 percent share of television watchers in March to 14.5 percent in May. Many appear to have switched to TV6, but it's hardly a genuine alternative yet. At least a third of Russia doesn't even get TV6, and in many places where it comes in, it's hard to pick up. Its early evening newscast has a 4.7 percent audience share.

A study of newscasts over 10 days in June showed that the new NTV doesn't shy away from controversy or tilt noticeably to one side of an issue. Neither does it have much edge, however, or break the sort of investigative pieces that helped make it famous.