Public Television of Russia: How Ordinary People Can Speak to Society and the Authorities

Russia is in the grip of a legitimacy crisis, hence all the protest we have been seeing. The authorities are trying to do something so as to establish a way of getting feedback from the people, either by reviving certain ideas or devising new ones. In all other countries, public television is one of these feedback channels; it is a mouthpiece, a rostrum, from which ordinary people can speak to both society and the authorities.

The idea to establish a public television channel in Russia was voiced by Dmitry Medvedev in late 2011. On May 19, 2013, the channel officially started its digital broadcasts. 

What, in your view, is the main purpose of the Public Television of Russia (PTR)? Is it a repackaging of the channel that existed in the 1990s, or a radically new project?

This country is in the grip of a legitimacy crisis, hence all the protest we have been seeing. The authorities are trying to do something so as to establish a way of getting feedback from the people, either by reviving certain ideas or devising new ones. In all other countries, public television is one of these feedback channels; it is a mouthpiece, a rostrum, from which ordinary people can speak to both society and the authorities.

How should the Public TV combine the three main functions of broadcasting – education, information and entertainment?

These three functions are indivisible. You cannot educate or inform, if what you say isn’t entertaining, if it is boring or impossible to watch. The entertainment function, therefore, is present anyway. The fact that the central channels in this country have been leaning too heavily on entertainment is another matter: too much noise, concerts, glamorous living stories … There is a widespread feeling that these endless forms of entertainment have stifled the important educational element. At the same time, the TV informs the public through its numerous news programs. But one has the impression that they have forgotten how to educate. I am talking about basic etiquette, as well. We see that young people have no source of information about the simplest everyday situations: how to behave correctly and properly in various situations. Our laboratory (Kryshtanovskaya’s Laboratory) has interviewed dozens of focus groups; people of different generations all say the same thing: we need to educate people via TV. But this shouldn’t be like a parental reprimand. At the very least, people must be told what is right and what is wrong; what society welcomes and what is unpleasant, indecent and anti-social. Virtually no one today speaks about this. The First Channel and NTV have started to do this, but it’s not enough.

Although all the three functions are very important, the educational function is more important than the other two because it has been overlooked for so long.

How competitive is the project?

For the time being, it is not competitive. I’ve been watching the channel for a week, trying to follow what they are doing. It’s clear that they have failed to find a style of their own. Each channel’s support base is made up of lively and interesting shows with key presenters, invited experts or stars. It’s clear that they are focusing on people from different social groups rather than stars, but there should still be lynchpin faces all the same. Now they are still out of focus, and haven’t come into their own.

The main educational channel, Kultura, has ratings of 2 to 4 percent. PTR Director General Anatoly Lysenko says he hopes the PTR will have ratings of 1.5-2 percent. Is it worth launching such a large-scale and costly project, if it is clear that the overwhelming majority of people will prefer to watch entertainment and sport?

They need to be more ambitious. You cannot hit 10% if your goal is 2%. To get 10%, you should target 30%. There is not enough ambition here. On the other hand, everything is still in the early stages. However, conceptual shortcomings – lack of clarity as to what we want, how we win audiences, etc. – are likely to create problems in the future.

Very popular TV journalists have joined the PTR. I hope that they will find the new formats and new stories that are needed. But without ambitious aims, a costly advertisement-free project with a 1.5% share of the audience is just a crippling burden.

What part will the PTR play in developing Russian civil society?

For civil society to come into its own, its activists should feel that this channel is their channel and rostrum, that here they have a chance to speak up, and that they will be able to come forward with their stories and proposals. This TV channel needs more openness. If there is a proper feedback between the PTR and civil society activists, the channel will be flooded with proposals.

Let me give you just one example. I am the leader of the Otlichnitsy organization, and we have a lot of ideas for TV programs. We are a women’s organization and work with teenage orphans from children’s homes. We have a lot of ideas on how to bring these population groups and their unpublicized problems to a TV studio. Right now this content is sensationalized and dramatized. It’s more like Dostoevsky’s chimeras than the real truth of life. No one will say how people actually live in real life, what goes on at orphanages, what kind of people abandon their children, etc. Our ideas about these people are completely wrong. But we shouldn’t get stuck on dull, depressing stories; we need to show interesting things.

Industrial tourism is an interesting subject. Many modern plants have been built in Russia in recent years. Each time I visit the provinces I ask my hosts to take me on a guided tour of some or other industrial facility. And I am always surprised that people are so vastly ignorant. Journalists who air stories claim that there are no industries in this country aside from oil and gas. There are industries, and their number is growing. Possibly far from all areas have been covered evenly, but there is no such thing as evenness in nature. These new workers should be shown to the public. In fact, the working class, the social leader in the past, seems to have disappeared all of a sudden, as if it had never existed at all. But they do exist, there are millions of them, and they are involved in production. The problem is that no one speaks about them. In the meantime, it’s a huge stratum of society. It’s difficult to make this subject interesting for audiences, but I think it is possible.

How would you comment on a VTSIOM poll showing that more than half of all respondents have never heard about the PTR and that only about seven percent could explain what it is?

They had never heard about the PTR because there were no advertisements for it. Today advertisements are the main source of information. What we heard were just debates on whether we needed it or not, and then an information blackout followed.

It’s the lack of information. I think the state-owned channels ought to advertise the PTR and point people towards it.

The PTR faced financial problems at an early stage. At first it was claimed that the channel would be independent of government subsidies, but later it became clear that it couldn’t develop as needed on the basis of public contributions alone. Won’t the channel be fully government-controlled if it is financed from the federal budget?

I have no illusions. It is a state-run and state-financed channel. From an economic point of view, it is quite a burden because you can’t be effective in principle without on-screen advertising. The government has taken this burden upon itself. It remains unclear why it has done so, because a real public television should collect money from spectators who pay for what they watch. The situation is like this in other countries. From the very start this arrangement didn’t seem well-conceived or quite clear in terms of both goals and financing structure.

Will the PTR manage to preserve its declared freedom “from political and commercial, internal and external censorship?”

Officially, there is no censorship in this country. But certain things are not voiced, due to how things work here. Someone in the Kremlin will invite editors-in-chief and brief them on what they should or shouldn’t show. In this case, it is the state, rather than society, that determines the information policy, the focus, the “white lists” and the “black lists.” If some other concept crops up, it is up to the state to interfere or to stay out, because the whole thing is financed by the state. And the state has a vested interest in creating the impression that the channel is independent and responding to public needs.

It’s a good aim. It’ll be great if it works.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.