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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tale of 2 Krasnoyarsk TV Stations

KRASNOYARSK, Western Siberia -- Alexander Karpov has come a long way since 1993, when his television station broadcast the news from a bomb shelter underneath the city's post office.

He introduced a new, Western style of TV news that no one in this western Siberian city of 1 million people had ever seen. His staff increased tenfold. He moved to a bigger studio. His journalists won awards at Russia's TEFI ceremony. And perhaps most important, Karpov started to show a profit.

But now, nine years later, the station, Afontovo, is fighting to survive. Its ratings in Krasnoyarsk have fallen to fourth place from second, overtaken by a scandal-mongering rival station that formerly belonged to metals magnate Anatoly Bykov.

Karpov, 40, is something most Russian businessmen are not: an idealist. He thinks television news should be balanced, and polite, and that television is as much a public service as a business. His rival is Vadim Vostrov, a swaggering 29-year-old who manages TV-K, and is above all a keen-eyed businessman. Vostrov also enjoys the political influence that television brings.

"We have classic news, and TV-K is always after someone," Karpov said. "We win contests for serious news, but people watch them more than us -- that's the truth."

Afontovo's plight is not unusual. Some 600 local stations across the provinces are being forced to make tough choices of staying afloat or staying honest. State takeovers of two countrywide networks that had supplied many regional stations with hours of free programming have made survival more difficult. Slick state channels beamed from Moscow receive millions of dollars in government loans, while devouring more than half the country's ad revenues. The small regional stations are left with crumbs.

When financing runs dry, stations often strike deals with image-conscious businesses or bureaucrats. For $3,000 to $10,000 a month -- sizable sums for the small stations -- reporting is for sale. Under these agreements, troubled stations provide positive coverage of factory triumphs, like the production of the millionth aluminum ingot, or a quiet lack of it for less flattering events.

"I'd rather sell apples for a living than make dishonest television," said Karpov at Afontovo's studio in a yellow-brick building that held concerts and dances in Soviet times.

In the early days, Afontovo, named for an ancient hill near the city, ran on sheer enthusiasm. Karpov set up shop in seven damp basement rooms that flooded whenever there was a glitch in the city's drainage system. He doubled as a driver when the office was short-staffed. Eventually Karpov smoothed the company into a profitable business, with tips from an American consultant.

"There's no free press without economic freedom, and he was very clear they had to be developed at the same time," said Meg Gaydosik, the consultant who at the time was station manager at KTVF, a CBS affiliate station in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Difficulties began when a financial crisis crushed the advertising market in 1998. The television ad market -- still tiny at $3 a person compared with $150 a person in the United States -- only late last year climbed back to the levels of 1997. The regional market has been slow to recover, growing only 2 percent in 2000, compared with 45 percent in Moscow, according to the Russian Association of Advertising Agencies.

Another blow came when Karpov's network partner, THT, part of Vladimir Gusinsky's empire, was taken over by the state and left to drift without investment. THT supplies Karpov with about eight hours of programming daily. He blames the network's poorer programming for his falling ratings.

By comparison, rival TV-K is bafflingly well-off. Workmen are refurbishing the manager's office. The station has added approximately eight hours a day of its own programming, something few stations can afford to do.

The station manager, Vostrov, dismisses any suggestion that he is taking money on the side. His station is prospering with higher ratings because its tabloid-style broadcasts appeal to a broader audience than do Afontovo's, which, truth be told, are dull, he says. Besides, Bykov, a former investor and the then-owner of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminum Plant, or KrAZ, stopped his financial support when he was driven from the region two years ago, Vostrov said.

Traditionally, KrAZ's owners have bought into local television stations and pepper the nightly news with positive broadcasts to ensure a sympathetic local population. The plant's current owner, Russian Aluminum, recently finished building a transmitting tower on a bluff overlooking the city, and is going into television on its own.

Vostrov, heavy-set and dressed in a sweat suit, argues that his reporting has more appeal. His journalists, for example, started keeping a running tally of the number of different fur coats worn by a deputy governor, Lyudmila Selivanova, to illustrate the corruption they say is rampant in the administration.

Afontovo, Vostrov said, "hates Selivanova even more than we do -- why weren't they counting her coats?"

Karpov has made compromises of his own. In 1998, he sold a third of his station to Gusinsky. The money went to build his own transmitter tower. Gusinsky, he said, has never made editorial demands.

But Karpov still has high hopes that his cautious, earnest approach will eventually pay off. "If you sell yourself once for money, you can't stop. It's like pregnancy -- you either are, or you aren't," he said.