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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NTV's 10th Birthday No Cause for Celebration

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NTV turned 10 last week. The station's personalities past and present were shown smiling happily in a special series of advertisements commemorating various stages of the station's progress. Yevgeny Kiselyov, who was sacked as NTV's general director, was joined in the studio of the talk show "Svoboda Slova," or "Freedom of Speech," by the man who replaced him, Boris Jordan. When the taping was finished, Jordan -- who was sacked a year after taking over -- had his picture taken with Kiselyov and his own replacement, Nikolai Senkevich.

The theme of the festivities on NTV seemed to be that "nothing and no one has been forgotten." The station saw its share of victories and defeats, but this is not the time to argue about who will go down in history. This is the time to reconcile friends who had become enemies and colleagues who had become rivals, to highlight not just the benevolence of the victors but the continuity of the station's development. Not "NTV Was Here," as Viktor Shenderovich titled his morose recollections, but "NTV Is Here." And we will sing its praises.

And sing they did. The station's stars belted out a tune written especially for the anniversary, one line per star, just as the stars of state television and radio in the early 1990s sang the "Good Mood Song" from the old movie "Carnival Night." They sang and then scattered among the various stations that arose after the breakup of centralized Soviet television. NTV's stars were singing to convince the viewers (and malevolent colleagues) of the superiority of the station's management style. But the lack of truly significant figures in the choir told a different story -- that there has been no real team spirit at the station for some time. And those who chose not to join the chorus on this occasion wanted most of all to prevent viewers from getting the impression that conciliation and concord had finally been achieved at the long-suffering station just in time for the birthday party.

This was a birthday without the party. Or a party so sad that it brought tears to your eyes. The print media was filled with the nostalgic memories of the founding fathers of Russia's first privately owned television station. "Svoboda Slova" tackled the question of freedom of speech in Russia. Was President Vladimir Putin right when, asked by Americans if freedom of speech was under attack in Russia, he replied that since this freedom had never really existed, it could hardly come under attack?

None of the invited guests that night agreed with Putin's assessment. Freedom of speech had definitely existed for a short time, before the journalists themselves cashed it in for broadcasting licenses, perks, access to power and fat pay packets. "You can't be a little bit pregnant," Vladimir Pozner said as he recalled NTV's open backing of Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential campaign.

Truth be told, I was sitting in the studio leafing through a collection of my own articles published in Izvestia from 1995 to 1998, which was brought out recently by Moscow University Publishing House. I came across the following lines, written a week before the 1996 election: "TV doesn't like Zyuganov and makes no attempt to hide it. Then again, he and his colleagues such as Viktor Anpilov did everything in their power to ensure that the television stations would consciously and voluntarily abandon their hard-won professional principles and join forces [to get Yeltsin re-elected]. The question is: If "everything turns out all right," will television be able to restore those democratic principles? Will the new (old) regime allow it? Or, having developed a taste [for a loyal press], will the regime turn this temporary love affair into a permanent obligation?"

In the end, TV never reinstated its old principles. And it goes without saying that the regime didn't allow it.

I asked Kiselyov if he thought that election was the beginning of the end for Russia's independent TV, and NTV first of all. As the campaign heated up, the NTV leadership turned what was then the best station in the country into a blunt but effective weapon, betraying not only their profession but the viewers for whom NTV had become the model of normal television and source of objective, reliable information after decades of shameless Soviet propaganda.

Kiselyov trotted out the old line about the threat of communism and about choosing the lesser of two evils. You may recall that the studio audience of "Svoboda Slova" indicates its opinion of the show's various speakers electronically. As Kiselyov spoke, his approval rating plummeted. And this spurred a discussion of the indifference of the Russian people to freedom generally, and to freedom of speech in particular.

But can journalists really blame the people for being indifferent when they've done so much to sour them on the whole idea, veiling their own ambitions under the cover of freedom of speech?

In the audience that night, only NTV's reporters kept silent -- those who stayed at the station after it was acquired by Gazprom, those who left and later returned, and those who left for good. But they are the pride and joy of NTV. They built its reputation as the best news channel. Their former boss did not, unfortunately, find the right words for the occasion. He should have told them: "This is your day, folks. I ask your forgiveness for 'airing our dirty laundry'; for forcing you to choose between loyalty to the team and the simple necessity to earn a living and support your families; for getting caught up in politics and then throwing the baby out with the bath water. That same baby, independent television, that inspired such high hopes."

Three letters are all that remains of those hopes: NTV. That, and the journalists who are trying with all their might to maintain the traditions and style of the old NTV, and who have no interest in lending their voices to a feel-good corporate ditty. All the more so since there was really no reason for anyone at the station to feel particularly good.

NTV, once the arbiter of taste in the television business, marked its 10th anniversary with falling ratings, a meager haul at this year's TEFI awards, and with CTC breathing down its neck, intent on replacing NTV in the troika of Russia's top stations.

Most importantly, on its 10th anniversary NTV has no coherent programming policy. On the old NTV everything was crystal clear. People watched the station because its news coverage and entertainment programming were a cut above. When its standoff with the Kremlin began, viewers were drawn by the station's opposition stance and bite.

These days, the news on NTV differs little from the competition. It has fallen behind Channel One, Rossia and even CTC in entertainment programming. And precious little remains of its cach? as a voice of opposition. As a result, viewers have little reason to choose NTV over any other channel. Viewers are creatures of habit. They are patient and forgiving. But sooner or later their patience comes to an end -- when their expectations are flouted, when their trust is abused, and when they are treated like idiots.

In the period from 1993 to 1999, the average NTV viewer was better educated than other viewers, and consequently demanded more sophisticated programming. NTV has all but lost this viewer by targeting the so-called mass viewer. You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

NTV's 10th anniversary is not a time for celebration, but for sober reflection. A time to remember how it all began, and to thank those who sincerely tried to make Russian television useful for society and interesting for viewers; to grieve for romantic illusions now lost forever; and to dream of a time when a new crop of audacious innovators will try again to create independent television in Russia.

Irina Petrovskaya writes a column for Izvestia, where this comment first appeared.