A Look at the Russian Television: Beyond the News

From all the media in the world, Russia might have the most  interesting media for an interested Finnish monitor. What was 70 years ago serving its part of Soviet aggression against Finland and later in peaceful times it still remained its role as a political instrument. In the phenomenon called Finlandization, the Finnish media were seen influenced by this force. The ideas of Soviet legacy still haunt the image of Russian media in Finland today. This image ought to be examined critically, not only in the way of how Russians look at the news broadcasts, but our own prejudices about it as well. How much do we know about it? There is more in it than the mythicized simplification. Personally, I have read a bunch of articles about Russian TV – even watched some of it while living in Russia – and I will tell that there is much more to it than the news. In other parts of our research project on Russian-speakers as media users will lighten up more of the perspective that many Russians do not so often even watch the news (do Finns for that matter?).

Television – or the zombie box, as Russians have named it – seems to have a particular place in the Russian heart’s love-hate section. I have seen much more often televisions in Russian kitchens and at dinner tables than in Finland, where the TV tends to have its own room. On the other hand, I have also heard even more ‘itelligentsia’ critique against the popular tendency to consume ‘trash’ from television in Russia than in Finland.

When the Soviet system seized to exist, the media proofed to be one of the Russian society’s most easily transformable elements in the new direction away from the old, towards something new which was promoted as liberating and democratic. When the Soviet ideology was gone from directing the television content, commercials, foreign movies and various adult content shows flooded quickly to the previously tightly controlled public sphere. This drastic change took place only for fair 20 years ago.

Later on Russian media has kept changing little by little and the dominant belief is that the media control has drifted away from oligarchs back towards the ‘state control’, as the popular perspective in the West interprets it. However, the idea that Russian media – even regarding the television only – would be under government’s total propaganda control is often far exaggerated. From the top3 biggest television channels, Russia1 (Rossiya1) is the only 100% government owned channel. Channel one (Perviy kanal) has a narrow state majority ownership, but Kremlin’s close ties to co-owners keep the content favorable to the power establishment. Besides government shares, many of Russian TV channels have connections to the Kremlin via state owned companies or people who are considered close to those in political power. Moreover, lots of Russian TV channels are local and therefore they have regional accents.

According to polls, television is the most popular information source of Russians when they want to know about national or international news, whilst regional and local coverage is sought from newspapers. The biggest channels with best reach all over the Russian territory have their main audience in the older population outside big cities, while the younger urban population is the main audience of smaller channels. Scholar Jukka Pietiläinen has noted that genres of Russian television programs do not significantly differ by the basis of channel ownership, because both the private and the public channels get commercial incomes and thus follow the commercial logic in their program selection.

While there is fairly much time given to news reports and documentaries, not only the commercial, but also the public Russian channels are full of commercials. In my view, the Russian television seems much more like the stereotype of American TV than Finnish, in the sense that it seems louder and emotional. Moreover, on midday television, you might see a rape in a series or raiding of drug caves and execution of a Parisian police in news reports, but women kissing each other in the Simpsons is censored from a broadcast at10 pm. Sexuality per se is really present in the Russian TV, but non-traditional aspects of it (and nudity) seem to be more worthy of protecting the audience from than violence.

Television guides resemble much of their western peers with much attention directed to Hollywood stars and globally popular series – the ones with Russian guest stars (such as in Game of Thrones) gain naturally some special attention. However, many of the TV guides do not focus on the contents of series, but to personal lives of their actors instead. In a way, these magazines appear as one kind of discussion forum on social issues, particularly when it comes to family. Relating to that, many of the most talked about television shows of the Fall 2015 have been light themed entertainment, e.g. family friendly reality shows. In sphere of sports, football is extremely popular, war themes in documentaries and classical Soviet era classics in films and cartoons. Also Bollywood films are quite popular. Cooking shows and series from the US and Britain in general are less shown in Russia than in Finland.

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In 2014 the most popular Russian television shows were Golos. Deti and Golos, third season (The Original format idea Voice of Holland, implemented among others in Finland as The Voice of Finland and The Voice Kids) and Pust’ govoryat! (Let them talk!) with 9.5%, 9.4% and 8.9% ratings respectively in 2014.

More than a decade running Pust’ Govoryat! is often seen as a typical Russian talk show, where various people from a man of a street and celebrities come to address their personal problems in front of the host, experts, and studio audience. The show can be compared to the Jerry Springer show in the sense that while it does stir public discussion on some socially relevant issues, it is mostly done in such a melodramatic and shock value seeking way that many cannot take it very seriously. Like many other Russian television shows, Pust’ Govoryat! is also strongly profiled to its main persona, in this case the host Andrey Malakhov, to the extent that it is not rare for the show to be referred as ‘the show of Malakhov’ in public discussion. People don’t always even remember the actual name of the host’s show.

For some, the talk show formats can arguably be more relevant in getting the picture of what is going on in Russia and the world than news reports. Professor of the Higher School of Journalists, Anna Kachkaeva has stated  that while there are often some proclaimed experts participating in socio-political discussion shows, the actual professionals either take distance from such genre, or they are blocked from getting involved, or they feel discomfort with the aggressive rhetorical battles as a rule in these shows.

Other long-term favorite series stirring public discussion include reality show Dom-2, where a group of youngsters seek for partners while building a house together and once the house is complete, they compete over who gets the house. The discussion of Dom-2 can be compared to that of Big Brother, in the
sense that many are really critical about the series’ ‘trashy’ style, but apparently everybody knows about it, talks about it and must have seen some of it.

Another longtime favorite series that enjoys cult popularity is Comedy Club, which is based on satirical, mature content stand-up comedy. Much like the Finnish shows Putous or Kummeli, it occasionally gives birth to jokes and quotes that spread to the everyday humor of its youthful audience.

Overall, I would conclude that in a superficial view, the Russian television definitely has its
own national characteristics, but eventually, it does not seem as radically different as what at least I had understood before actually watching it.

Teemu Oivo
Researcher, University of Eastern Finland