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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prospects for Public Television

About two years ago, when the NTV controversy was just starting up, I was speaking at an international conference in St. Petersburg on the prospects of establishing public service broadcasting in this country.

Against a general backdrop of doom and gloom, I said the following: "The main obstacle to creating a classical public broadcasting service along the lines of the BBC, which has nothing in common with the 'presidential-controlled' television stations that we now have (such as RTR), is oligarchical television. While the big guns of broadcasting are in the hands of powerful oligarchs, our weak executive branch will never relinquish its direct control of state television -- which is just about the only reliable instrument of governance and means of counter-propaganda and self-defense. The faster the authorities deal with NTV, the nearer will be the day that public television can be established in this country."

I can proudly say now that it was a prophetic statement. It is true that the battle with oligarchic television has been a protracted one, for the standard that slipped from Vladimir Gusinsky's hands was seized by Boris Berezovsky. However, only a few weeks had gone by from TV6 being taken off air when Press Minister Mikhail Lesin made several public pronouncements about the need for setting up a public broadcasting service in Russia.

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This in itself is quite a revolutionary development. This is the first time in this country's more than a decade of democracy that an official of this rank has publicly and apparently seriously proposed the "informational disarmament of the state." However, the experience of other post-Soviet states shows that the setting up of public television is extremely complicated -- and the main obstacles do not involve financing or broadcasting frequencies but people's prejudices.

The first obstacle is ignorance. To the best of my knowledge, politicians, who after all will make the decision, sincerely believe that public television should present the activities of the executive, judicial and legislative branches as they themselves would like to be presented.

Of course, even this kind of state television would be an advance on the presidential television we have now. However, from the public's viewpoint, it will be indescribably boring. As a result, it will not win viewers' trust and thus will most likely serve to discredit the very idea of public service broadcasting.

What is needed is a serious educational and PR campaign conducted among decision makers themselves to explain that it is in their own interests to have public television -- insulated from the ever-shifting balance of political forces -- that can objectively explain policy to the public rather than serve as a propagandistic tool for the powers-that-be. An integral part of public television is that important sections of the public, such as religious confessions, ethnic groups, serious civic movements and others are represented on the oversight bodies by recognized NGOs. However, we have very few of such widely recognized organizations in this country. And it's not hard to imagine that one hell of a dispute would break out between these organizations for representation -- something which alone could sink the whole initiative.

And one more danger. The roving band of veterans of the war for freedom of speech led by Yevgeny Kiselyov has apparently found a new group of rich patrons willing to pay the bills and bankroll its ambitions for reasons that are far from clear. If this team wins the tender for Channel 6 at the end of March, I think we can safely forget about public service broadcasting at least until after the next presidential election.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (www.internews.ru/sreda)