Independent TV Gives Moscow New Views
Joint venture of Turner Broadcasting and Russian company starts small, but has big plans for expansion
IT'S 6:45 p.m. and Arkady Goryachev is sitting alone behind the television studio's glass window, his only company a TV monitor and a microphone.
Mr. Goryachev's job is to simultaneously translate from English into Russian a live CNN news program, broadcast nightly by TV6 Moscow. At 7 p.m. on the dot, the red light goes on, and Goryachev starts grappling with language. TV6, the first Russian station financially independent from the state, begins another programming day.
"As a former translator for the United Nations, I can say this is the toughest job I have ever had, because of the speed at which they speak, especially when they read business news," Goryachev says after the CNN broadcast. "I think I'll have to do it for several months before I get over the stress."
Goryachev isn't the only one at TV6 who's under stress since the station went on the air Jan. 1. Employees are struggling to work out the bugs and attain the same high standards as CNN.
Nevertheless, TV6 has already given new meaning to programming and production in Russian television. Though the standards of the other five channels in Russia have risen since the collapse of communism, sloppy production is still a problem.
"Before, no one would count the seconds," says TV6 coordinating producer Akhmat Malikov. "If you were two or three seconds off, so what? But now at TV6 we count every second, we want to keep the viewer's attention - otherwise, he may get up and go to the kitchen." Unique financing
But TV6 isn't unique just for its quality. Because it's independently financed, it's also the first channel in Russia to be almost totally free of state control.
The channel is a joint project of media mogul Ted Turner's Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. (TBS) and the Moscow Independent Broadcasting Company (MIBC). It currently broadcasts for five hours every evening, but the goal is to expand to a 24-hour schedule.
"I hope this will raise standards throughout Russian television," says Eduard Sagalayev, MIBC president and former director-general of the state-run Ostankino Television Company, which controls virtually all programming on the Russian airwaves.
The station relies heavily on the Turner media empire for programming. Each broadcast day begins and ends with a half-hour of CNN news with Russian translation. In between there are both Russian and American movies, including such classics as "Singing in the Rain," taken from the thousands of films in the Turner library.
The project represents a substantial investment on the part of TBS at a time of economic uncertainty here. Total start-up costs were several million dollars, Sagalayev says.
But for Mr. Turner, a man with a long history of dealings with Moscow, the potential benefits outweigh any risks. "This is going to lose money for a while," says Sidney Pike, president of CNN International Special Projects. "But Ted looks ahead and is willing to bite the bullet."
TV6's biggest problem right now is expanding the potential viewing audience. The station's weak transmission signal means its programs are seen only in 650,000 of Moscow's approximately 3.2 million homes, according to Mr. Pike. TV6 should be available in all Moscow homes within six to nine months, but that requires a costly upgrade of the city's television transmission capabilities, he adds.
"The problem is that when the state conceived television, it planned only five channels," Pike says. "To accommodate a sixth, it takes the modification of about 1,500 antennas."
The modification could cost up to $1 million - money that's badly needed to buy new equipment and other items connected with the launch of a new station, Sagalayev says. Western news broadcasts
In a nation that was starved for news under the tightly controlled communist system, Western news broadcasts have gained immediate popularity in Moscow. Currently, the CBS Evening News and the British Broadcasting Corporation news are broadcast on other channels.
Having CNN appears to give TV6 a big opportunity to capture viewers, but Pike says the station's aim isn't to become news-dominated.
"It will be like any independent station in the United States," he says. "It's not intended to be built around CNN - it's supposed to be entertainment driven." An entertainment-oriented TV station is a novelty in Russia, as other channels still run a plethora of dry, little-watched political programming.
TV6 currently leases broadcasting facilities from the state-run Ostankino company. But the aim is to move out of Ostankino studios as soon as possible, something that would make TV6 the first Moscow station to operate outside the sprawling Ostankino complex on the outskirts of the capital.
If all goes according to plan, TV6 eventually will become a nationwide network.
"For the viewers there's already been an awakening," Sagalayev says, "but I can't say for sure what will happen further because of the uncertain [economic] conditions."