How Television is Uniting a Nation

Traditionally, TV in Russia is much more than just pure entertainment. It's a social institution of great importance that brings the nation together and provides the basis for Russians' sense of self and identity. Why?
Today the Russian economy is on an upswing, and so are consumer services and advertising. It is not surprising, then, that the Russian television market is among the most dynamic in the world, with about 30 percent annual growth rate since 2000.

In this market free-to-air (FTA) television leads, setting it apart from its European and American counterparts. The development of, and public demand for, paid satellite and cable services is far smaller in Russia than in the UK and the US.

Terrestrial broadcasting owes its strength to its content and quality. There are currently more than 20 terrestrial channels available in such cities as Yekaterinburg, Vladivostok, Moscow, St Petersburg and other large cities. But FTA in Russia includes niche sport and music channels, traditionally pillars of the pay TV industry in the UK and the U.S. In Russia, there are at least two free terrestrial sport channels, MTV and Muz-TV, and three or four movie channels: Russian terrestrial TV offers a diversity of viewing that is difficult for subscription channels to rival.

Russians have traditionally enjoyed free TV. Paid channels will hardly be a priority in a country where the average monthly wage is $400.

Technology also presents a problem for the subscription channels. Cables cover only 22 percent of Russian territory, and they are often old copper cables laid to carry analogue signals with a capacity of between 14 and 18 channels - nowadays a negligible number. In the areas where the cable network has be relaid or modernized, the problem is reversed: a 100-channel cable covers the entire city, but lacks sufficient content for this number of channels.

There is another major factor: homemade programs dominate Russia's TV landscape. Leading international titles - movies, series and shows - are usually confined to relatively weak time slots. Instead, Russian producers adapt international formats to meet national values and tastes.

The purchased and adapted formats play an important role in Russian TV channels' programming. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is very popular on Channel One, as is Wonderfield, Russia's Wheel of Fortune.

Sometimes it's in Russia where formats prove their potential for international popularity. CTC Media enjoyed co-operation with Sony Pictures Television International (SPTI) on a Columbian format that was aired on CTC as Born not Pretty and turned out to be one of the most successful of Russian adaptations.

This doesn't mean that Russia doesn't produce original ideas. Local product dominates in such genres as news, documentaries, TV movies and miniseries. Whether these can survive internationally is yet to be seen, although such Russian originals as the Good Jokes show and the Poor Nastya series have been sold to several dozen countries and caused a sensation in China and Greece. CTC has also introduced the sitcom genre to the Russian audience, with successful adaptations of the American series The Nanny and Who's the Boss? and here we are now airing the first successful Russian-made sitcom, Daddy's Daughters, based on an original story.

A third reason for TV's importance is its rapid development as a tool of communication, a forum for debate and the nation's favorite pastime. The Internet and other rival media are far less popular in Russia than they are in other European countries and the U.S. So television is advertisers' ideal medium for every audience from children to retirees.

Yet, in stark contrast to its American and British counterparts, Russian television is the lowest-cost advertiser. In terms of CPT (cost per thousand contacts), the costs of advertising on Russian television are far smaller than the print, radio or Internet options.

Russian television has another characteristic. It consists of two worlds - government and commercial channels. The former are inspired by their social mission. Yet while they are dependent on government funding, in the last few years they have devoted the lion's share of their programming to entertainment. Whereas information and news updates used to dominate - especially during perestroika, when taboo themes were suddenly opened to public discussion. Now a consumer society has taken shape, bringing stability. Russians want to choose from the greatest possible number of brands, so the television has gone to the other extreme, giving up serious dialogue altogether.

In a matter of 15 years, Russian television has gone as far as American TV did in half a century. It has launched between five and 10 new programs, series and shows a year, while only one of those shows could hold pride of place in other countries.

Russians sit for hours in front of the screen, and are a demanding audience. TV is much more than entertainment for its audience and more than a thriving business for its owners. It makes Russian people a nation, builds national identity. Around 140,000,000 people separated from each other by many thousand miles stick to the same news, cry over the same TV story lines, laugh together at the same jokes and answer the same questions during quiz shows.

Russian television attempts to address metaphysical questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we heading? How do we co-exist? A huge country in which the national radio and press play a considerably smaller part than in other states, Russia has only one true national media outlet. And that's the television.

Alexander Rodnyansky is the president of CTC Media, one of the largest Russian and European media companies, which incorporates CTC and Domashny TV-networks.

Prepared by
Susanna Alperina,
Oksana Naralenkova

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