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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mass Psychotherapy Courtesy of State Channels

This week's column is devoted to the start of the fall television season. Traditionally the season gets under way in September, but I'd like to begin back in August, when I was vacationing in Lithuania at the seaside (pine forests, the beach, hot sun, lapping of the waves, rustling of the dunes). Before bed, I would watch television, and thankfully there were plenty of Russian channels.

On one glorious evening I was peacefully falling asleep to the sounds of the latest gory series on NTV, when my wife suddenly poked me in the ribs: "Something has happened in Moscow!" I opened my eyes and saw an announcement running along the bottom of the screen: "Please stay tuned for a breaking news bulletin on NTV." That gave me quite a start. For Russians, August -- the month of the putsch, the default, the apartment building bombings and the Kursk -- is a time of anxious expectation.

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Twenty minutes of waiting for the news bulletin kept us on tenterhooks. Finally a news anchor appeared and announced that an explosion had occurred in a Moscow apartment building. She promised a live report in the next update. This time the wait was even more unbearable. Then came the live report from the scene of the explosion. "Rescue workers and experts are saying this was a routine gas explosion, but the residents here don't buy it, and my own experience tells me that things are a little more complicated than that," the reporter said. Updates continued all night, each report making it all the more clear that this was just an ordinary gas explosion. But the journalists held on to the possibility of a terrorist attack until the very end.

The next day we arrived at the beach later than usual, exhausted and cranky. Our conversation turned not on the delights of Lithuanian cuisine -- fried pigs' ears with boiled peas -- but on the irresponsibility of the editors at NTV.

A couple of days later we suffered through yet another news flash on the same channel. This time the camera followed a truck through the streets of Moscow. The truck, we were told, was loaded with explosives, and its driver was demanding a meeting with Putin. This momentous event also turned out to be nothing, but it certainly frayed our nerves. My wife and I were both starting to think that NTV was secretly actually hoping for a terrorist attack that it could broadcast live.

When we returned to Moscow in September, I was horrified to read in the newspapers that what struck me as an annoying error on the part of NTV's editors was, in fact, the focus of their new news policy. NTV has warned that it plans to continue interrupting good movies and sports programs with bad news. I took this as a personal insult. While I was trying to relax, it turns out, NTV was having a rehearsal.

I also read that some 50 million Russians are in need of psychiatric treatment as the result of protracted psycho-emotional stress. According to a poll conducted by the ROMIR polling agency, 72 percent of respondents supported the idea of regulating news coverage in the mass media. On the list of topics ripe for regulation were violence and brutality, pornography, war-related propaganda and political extremism.

It seems the stations not directly owned by the state, NTV and TVS, are starting to flex their political muscles, while state-controlled RTR and ORT are going for more entertainment and less politics. "What's the upshot? With the start of the election campaign virtually upon us, the management of the stations trusted by the state have sheathed their swords," Nezavisimaya Gazeta opined last week.

A well-known political consultant said to be close to the Kremlin told me that one of the main goals of the government's "information policy" was to help the population overcome the "August syndrome."

And then I thought to myself: From here on out, I will only watch news, sports and movies on the state channels.

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