New East Digital Archive

Russia’s public broadcaster gets off to bumpy start

13 June 2013
Text Elena Pakhomova

Whether it’s the BBC in the UK or Japan’s NHK, public broadcasters that are run for the benefit of the public, rather than purely commercial purposes, are often viewed as national treasures. On 19 May, OTR, Russia’s third attempt at a public television network, was launched as an alternative to the state-owned channels, which are fast losing viewers’ interest and, crucially, trust. But just weeks after its launch, its programmes have been slated as anachronistic and it has already been accused of censorship. To make matters worse, OTR is rapidly running out of funds.

Alexander Sharikov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics and a member of the supervisory board of the channel, is not convinced that the public broadcasting model, adopted elsewhere in the world, will work in Russia. He told The Calvert Journal: “The Russian legal system doesn’t allow the creation of a public channel without governmental control, how else can you get money? Another option is to bring in advertisers, but previous experience shows that this will make TV a platform for business interests.”

“The quality of the image and the design of the channel all scream that OTR is in desperate need of money”

OTR, a pet project of the former president, now prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, was provided with 1.5 billion roubles (£30m) from the state budget for the first year. It is the 10th federal broadcaster available to television watchers across the country for free. The idea for the channel was floated by Medvedev in the wake of the 2011 anti-Vladimir Putin protests. At the time, opposition activists and journalists denounced the coverage on national television channels as biased and demanded air-time. During one rally, Leonid Parfenov, a prominent broadcast personality, described Russian television as “dodgy”. The speech did not go unnoticed. Shortly after, the Kremlin announced it would be launching an independent public broadcaster.

Yet OTR has been hobbled from the outset: failure to raise sufficient funds from the public resulted in the government stepping in to support the channel. And, even though the project’s architects looked to implement recruitment models favoured by broadcasters such as the BBC, the appointment of the channel’s general director came not from a board of trustees but from the president himself. In July 2012, Anatoly Lysenko, a 76-year-old veteran Russian journalist, was handpicked for the job.

The lack of financial support from the public means the channel has until autumn before its coffers run dry. Although OTR received 1.5 billion roubles (£35m) in 2013, roughly half of that was invested into the company’s premises. The figure seems particularly modest when compared to the 11 billion roubles (£217m) that will be given to English-language, state-backed channel RT (formerly Russia Today) this year alone.

Around the world, public broadcasters receive funding from a variety of difference sources. In the UK, for example, the government charges a licence fee, which is paid for by all British households, companies and organisations with a television or by those who watch live programmes online. In Russia, this option was vetoed by the state. And, as Sharikov says, why would households cough up money for a licence fee when there are roughly 35 free television channels? Polls confirm Sharikov’s suspicions. According to Public Opinion (Obshchestvennoe mnenie), a polling company, only 10% of the population are willing to pay a licence fee. “The quality of the image and the design of the channel all scream that OTR is in desperate need of money,” says Lidia, a television producer in her twenties who preferred not to disclose her surname and who, like others her age, is more accustomed to sourcing information online.

“In Russia, TV channels are the only media that matters, which is why the government controls TV very closely”

The migration to the internet, especially among younger audiences, is not a phenomenon unique to Russia. Around the world, young people are increasingly turning to the internet for their daily consumption of news, especially in countries where television channels are largely controlled by the state. In Russia, more liberal-minded members of the population also have the option of watching Rain TV, an independent network that came into its own during the 2011 protests. Its coverage of the protests stood out in stark contrast to state-backed channels, which failed to give the opposition air-time. Despite the availability of other sources, and growing mistrust towards state-backed channels, television is still the most popular source of news in the Russia and a critical part of shaping public opinion.

For Oliver Bullough, a journalist and writer, comparisons between OTR and the BBC are futile given Britain’s long history of democracy and its established system of media regulation. He adds that Russian and US television channels are far more similar. “The new Russian TV channel looks very good on paper. The structure and design look absolutely great,” said Bullough. “But in Russia, TV channels are the only media that matters, which is why the government controls TV very closely. OTR will inevitably reflect Russian politics. If tomorrow Putin decides he wants a freer media, which allows journalists to say what they want, the channel will be very good. But there’s no imminent prospect of that.”

In its first few weeks, it seemed evident that OTR, which carries no advertising, was still figuring out the demographic of its audience. Viewers too may well have been asking same question given the archaic nature of the channel’s programming, which has been described as nostalgic and harking back to the Soviet-era. Although praised on the one hand for providing a platform for regional news, it has also been criticised for prioritising local affairs over national issues of great importance.

“Yes, their attempts might be not very convincing now, but give the channel some time to improve; don’t be so critical”

Stories of medics in Nizhny Novgorod, who struggle to survive on their paltry salaries, while valuable for giving a voice to minorities and local communities are given precedence over significant events such as the “gay propaganda” law protests. In another example, the death of popular filmmaker Alexei Balabanov was mentioned only at the end of a news bulletin about a local fishing festival. In support of its programming decisions, the OTR regularly airs vox pops with people on the street who champion the channel’s decision to broadcast more positive news topics.

As a result of its ethos, political programmes are noticeably absent on the channel. Although opposition figures such as lawyer and political activist Alexei Navalny have been invited on air for interview, the channel has already been engulfed in a censorship scandal. Last week, presenter Vladislav Sorokin said that he would be leaving OTR after his show, Social Network, was dropped because it contained a sketch poking fun at Putin. In the sketch, Putin, who recently divorced from his wife of 30 years, creates an online dating profile. Lysenko has denied the allegation.

In response to its detractors, OTR has said it is prepared to change its programming according to public demand. “It’s very difficult to find a balance in covering politics, but that’s what OTR is now trying to do,” said Sharikov. “Yes, their attempts might be not very convincing now, but give the channel some time to improve; don’t be so critical. You can ruin it right now, but what’s the use?”