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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Funny Cartoons, Serious Business

Natalya Vashko labors under the slogan "Turn off your brain!" But her own brain won't heed that advice.

  On a recent afternoon in Correa's cafe, sardined between couples out for afternoon tea, the 38-year-old director of the 2x2 television channel sat down for what she called relaxation: reading a thick manual titled "Managing Media Companies." Emblazoned across the cover was a light switch etched with the word "On."

Vashko's 2x2 channel shows animation aimed at adults, including "Beavis and Butthead," "Pinky and the Brain" and "Cow and Chicken."

But behind the controls of a station whose sole purpose when turned on is to allow viewers to shut down, Vashko runs on a loop round the clock. "Turn off my brain?" she said. "Only if the channel is pulled from the air."

It's clear why the face of the channel needs such stamina. When Vashko took over the controls in April 2006, 2x2 had just been acquired by Prof-Media. Previously, it had been a shopping channel, and her job was to conceptualize its future. For a new venture approaching film distributors with budgets that Vashko called "laughable," energy was necessary.

After evaluating the market, Vashko decided against targeting quickly lucrative and large audiences. She honed in on 11- to 34-year-olds, who watch TV least of all age groups and pose the greatest challenge, and decided the channel would show exclusively animation programs. This idea did not please the company's leadership.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Vashko is credited for her originality and an ability to make unusual decisions.
"I said, 'Give me 10 minutes and you're going to agree,'" said Vashko. First she tried to convince them about the target audience. "And then I said, 'Give me another 10 minutes, and I'll convince you why it has to be just animation.'"

Eventually, Vashko's idea won the day, and she managed to convince distributors to provide cartoons despite 2x2's meager budget. The cartoon channel went on air for the first time on April 1.

Vashko remembers every detail about the channel's first steps into airtime. One day before broadcast, the first episode of "12 oz. Mouse" -- a U.S. Cartoon Network series featuring an antisocial and alcoholic mouse -- had not been dubbed into Russian. The person responsible for the recording stopped picking up his telephone at 2 p.m., said Vashko, leaving the rest of her 50-person team to show "Pollitrovaya Mysh" in English.

But things worked out: "On April 1, we had 1.3 percent of the audience," Vashko said. "On April 2, 3.9 percent, and April 3, 4.5 percent."

2x2 now claims 2.1 percent of television viewers in Moscow -- not impressive by any means, but it places above MTV, competing for the same audience, the TNS Gallup Media monitoring agency showed in its latest statistics.

"In the leadup to the opening of 2x2, there were many skeptics," said Roman Petrenko, director of TNT television, where Vashko was director of programming before leaving for 2x2. But the channel has defied expectations, Petrenko said, thanks to Vashko's originality, independent thinking and an ability to "make unusual decisions."

Unusual decisions, after all, are how Vashko got to 2x2 in the first place. Growing up in Kiev, where her family still lives, the future television director wanted to pursue physics and mathematics. "It was all about the brain," she said of her youth.

But when she was applying for university in 1986, on the advice of a professor with whom she said she had only spoken for 10 minutes, Vashko spontaneously decided to enter a newly developed sociology stream at Kiev State University.

Upon graduation, she worked in communications and marketing, eventually jumping from the Gallup Media polling company to marketing and directing positions at TNT and NTV.

Vashko's decision to leave her high-flying stint as programming director at TNT -- a national station ranked third in audience share according to Gallup Media -- and join the little-known 2x2 was another unusual step.

But this, said Vashko, is the first job where she is completely independent. "I don't need to answer to anyone or check decisions with anyone," she said. "That's boring."

Still, being leader has brought its own difficulties, and Vashko, who used to go snowboarding in her down time, hasn't touched the slopes in two years. She said she called a psychologist sometimes to air her problems.

But Vashko's energy, Gallup Media deputy director Alexander Kostyuk said, will keep her going. "Natalya has had a crazy career," he said. "She's very up to the moment, and that's very important in television."

As for career advice, Vashko said there aren't enough people who are determined enough to be original and follow it through, convincing others in the process. Success in television, she said, comes to leaders who carry out their visions.