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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brave New Television

In Russia, there is a democratic demand for authoritarian decisions. I came to that conclusion during the monthlong National Media Forum, a series of roundtable discussions with leading media professionals organized by the Russian Union of Journalists that ended Friday.

As an experiment, I looked through the roughly 400 video blogs addressing the media that had been posted on President Dmitry Medvedev’s site since January 2009. The overriding sentiment they expressed was that the modern media, and especially television, is perverting and debilitating society. Practically every blogger requested greater government regulation of the media and the introduction of morality-based censorship. Viewers are repulsed by television commercials, violence on the screen, the excessive number of catastrophes reported in the news, the pro-Kremlin propaganda, ubiquitous eroticism and sexuality, and so on.

From Medvedev’s blog, I switched to the RIA-Novosti site. This is a high-quality, state-owned media resource providing serious, fairly unbiased analyses of current issues, carrying a pluralistic array of guest columnists, as well as sharp-witted caricatures of various public figures, including the country’s top leaders. But the most common requests from the site’s users were not for weightier news coverage, but for more details about the personal lives of Russia’s oligarchs and for reports on scandals and disasters.

When comparing which improvements viewers claim they would like to see in the media with their actual tastes, it becomes clear that Russians love to argue and debate like responsible citizens, but they behave like philistines. And, as if they sense this dichotomy, they turn to the president saying, “We know that the garbage portrayed in the media is bad, but we can’t say ‘no’ to it ourselves. Please give us a state censor to clean things up.”

That position in some ways resembles people’s attitude toward modernization. According to surveys, Russians understand that the country needs to modernize, but they have trouble identifying who has the most to gain from it, even while they are certain that state authorities must provide the driving force to make it happen. That lends force to the assertion in the report recently issued by the Institute of Contemporary Development titled “21st-Century Russia: Reflections on an Attractive Tomorrow” that modernization will require resolute political will — and possibly even overt pressure tactics against opponents — to succeed. At least, the report’s recommendation that authorities conduct “show actions against bureaucracy” involuntarily call up associations with the “show trials” during Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s modernization drive. In this case, these words don’t bother me.

However much observers might criticize Russian television, it plays an enormous social and therapeutic role for society. Entertainment programs — which according to television analyst Lidia Matveyeva account for about 70 percent of all programming on leading channels — unquestionably keep the overwhelming majority of Russians chained to their screens and distracts them from life’s problems and unpleasant thoughts.

While television is aimed at the common person and designed to sustain the status quo, modernization requires an active civil society in which people are mobilized toward accomplishing a shared goal. But to achieve that kind of society, Russia needs a completely different type of television programming than we have now — one that would require strict regulation of content to focus on issues other than entertainment. It would probably also require additional sources of noncommercial funding.

Alexei Pankin is editor of WAN-IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.