Russian President Boris Yeltsin dances at a rock concert after arriving in Rostov on Monday, June 10, 1996. This AP photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize.

It’s election time in Russia again. This is when the Russian television industry experiences the greatest pressure and when the fragile but enormously important institution of information pluralism is most at risk.

That there is a genuine—though imperfect—pluralism on the national television networks is a profoundly important accomplishment of a badly flawed transition. There are no real guarantees of press pluralism in today’s When [Russian viewers] encounter bias in news reporting, they usually watch to the end. But their trust has curdled.Russia, no watchdogs with teeth. There is only a wobbly market (much weakened by the August 1998 crash) that supports commercial stations competing with and challenging governmentally managed news. When the state and the private owners collude—as they did in support of Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 presidential campaign—the competitive information market is powerfully undercut.

Television and Pluralism

First, a roadmap of the Russian television landscape. Four Moscow-based national networks, in order of popularity, dominate the market:

  • ORT (Russian Public Television, Channel 1), heir to the largest Soviet-era station, is currently a public/private hybrid (51 percent of its shares belong to the government) whose most prominent private investor (and real decision-maker) is Boris Berezovsky. Berezovsky, one of Russia’s richest new tycoons, parlayed a car dealership into huge wealth. A close friend of the Yeltsin family, he has served as secretary of the President’s defense council and as coordinator of the organization linking former Soviet states.
  • NTV, the biggest commercial station, reaches about 70 percent of the country and is owned by Vladimir Gusinsky, who rose from amateur theater impresario in Soviet times to founder of MOST bank, the chief source of capital for his media investments. Specializing in news, the station routinely sweeps news and public affairs awards. Its subsidiary, THT (TNT in Russia) is acquiring private stations in the provinces for a locally based network.
  • RTR (Russian State Television, Channel 2), a state-owned and operated station, has almost total penetration but falling ratings and continual shifts of leadership.
  • TV-6, the country’s first commercial station, now has roughly 60 percent penetration and is building a news capacity. Berezovsky’s recent purchase of a controlling interest gives him a commercial property that the government and Duma cannot so easily claim.

Across Russia, some 1,200 stations have acquired licenses to operate, and about half of these are on the air at the moment. Even so, the national networks absorb 83 to 85 percent of the prime-time audience. Especially during the frequent crises (e.g. the war in Chechnya, the August ’98 crash) there is near-total dependence on the national networks.

Virtually every Russian household has at least one television set. However, despite attracting huge audiences, the television industry has not escaped the devastating effects of the nation’s 1998 economic crash. Since then, advertising revenues have fallen by 70 percent, and even the most competitive stations have been pushed into negative growth. Foreign programs became prohibitively expensive; staffs were downsized or not paid; advertising time was deeply discounted, and profits went up in smoke.

Though Direct Broadcast Satellite and cable are in the Russian market, over-the-air Moscow-based national networks are still what attract the lion’s share of the viewing public. It is for this reason that control of television has become a hotly contested prize. The President and parliament battle over who calls the shots at Channels One and Two. So far, the content “monitoring councils” installed by Channels One and Two to propitiate the Communist-nationalist parliamentary majority have been desultory, ineffectual time-wasters, prompting new calls from the Duma for higher-level councils.

In the run-up to elections, the Russian government has restored the press ministry, which controls licensing. The press ministry also moved to assert control by trying to bring the 100-plus regional state-owned stations back under a tight regime, a step many regard as thoroughly unrealistic since many of these stations are now controlled by regional politicians who depend more on their local constituencies than on Moscow. Besides, these stations, like others, must compete for viewers with local commercial stations and the national networks. Thus, even if local state-owned stations were inclined to follow orders from Moscow about what their news programs should say, they can no longer count on a captive public.

On the commercial side, concentration of ownership poses the biggest threat. Cross-ownership of media properties is practically unregulated; broadcast licenses—for the powerful—have been granted without effective competition.

These findings are drawn from a national survey of urban (including very small communities) Russians. I directed the survey, together with the Public Opinion Foundation, under the direction of Alexander Oslon and Elena Petrenko. It was fielded from June 1-10, 1998.
Still, despite such dubious procedures and in a very short time, television succeeded in enabling the post- Soviet Russian public to access multiple sources and contending points of view in the news. NTV did it with greatest credibility, and during each crisis its ratings climbed. In our 1998 Russian national survey, 59 percent said the best journalists work at NTV; 29 percent gave OKT as an answer, and only 12 percent said RTR. Television allowed viewers to see what Soviet rulers long had feared and prohibited. Viewers learned that their own dissenting opinions were also held by many others, some in prominent positions. During the war in Chechnya, viewers saw some military officers condemn the action, while others supported it, and some elected deputies criticized the President, while cabinet ministers defended him.

The reverse occurred when the national networks coordinated their coverage during the 1996 presidential campaign. The first order of the administration’s business was to prove that Yeltsin was physically fit to be a candidate, and television was the key. For many months, he had been an absent or remote figure, cordoned off by officials, and obviously out of touch. Suddenly he was portrayed as the model of a vigorous incumbent, dominating the news with a new initiative every day. The newly energized President led an impressive campaign, and it took its toll. In the two weeks after the first round of the election, Yeltsin was sidelined by a series of heart attacks concealed by the networks and described as merely a cold. Yeltsin came back on television only just before the final vote.

The networks’ partisan collaboration did not nullify some fair-campaign rules. All candidates got free time in randomly assigned slots. Paid political advertising spots were purchased by the President’s campaign and most of his competitors in the first round. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov did live interviews on NTV, answering reporters’ hostile questions, but a similar searchlight was never turned on Yeltsin’s abundant campaign promises or his precarious health.

Yet it would be a mistake to ascribe too much influence to television and too little to the capacity of voters to make their own evaluations. Sweeping statements that exaggerate the persuasive power of television in this election are wrong except on a critical dimension that probably will not apply to future campaigns: Television presented visual evidence to the nation that Boris Yeltsin really was a “live” candidate and almost killed him in the process.

Owners’ Agendas

In anticipation of the 1999-2000 election season, television outlets are increasing in value to candidates and their backers. If they do not control their own properties, they often look for alliances with managements of commercial or state-run stations.

At the national level, the politically ambitious Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, converted the city’s television station into a new channel, TVCenter (the city also has a piece of the Moscow radio station and a newspaper group), and has made some alliances with politically compatible regional stations. He also put on TV-Center’s board some of the strategists from the ’96 Yeltsin campaign, including the murky figure of Sergei Lisovsky, rock entrepreneur, ad agency director, and suspect in gross (as opposed to ordinary) financial misconduct.

Even though Luzhkov and other media barons can and do use their properties to push their agendas, their programs now have to compete for viewers. Similarly, local officials who are moving to control programming on regional state-owned stations face competition from movies, soap operas and a range of entertainment choices on other channels. Not only do viewers have a choice, but they have also become hardened to the spin doctors’ blandishments.

Different owners seek to influence the news to different degrees. It is too early to tell if, in the end, the seamless collusion of 1996 will be repeated in upcoming elections or if the current war between Gusinsky and Berezovsky will escalate. This latter scenario is a distinct possibility if Berezovsky follows through on his stated intention of running for parliament and he and the Yeltsin government maintain their fierce hostility to a possible Luzhkov presidential candidacy.

On the national news networks, owners’ bias is seen most openly on weekend “news analysis” shows, featuring opinion and commentary and hosted by each station’s most popular anchor. One striking example of this can be observed in the results of our content analysis of network bias (defined by either skewed selection of materials or opinionated newswriting) in coverage of then-presidential contender Gen. Alexander Lebed’s 1998 run for Krasnoyarsk governor. Berezovsky’s Channel One supported Lebed. The Russian government’s RTR opposed him. This content analysis found bias on 100 percent of the weekend shows on those two channels.

Daily news programs, on the other hand, tend to be less personalized, cover a far greater range of subjects, and provide a much larger universe of news stories. In the content analysis study, bias was found in daily news programs much less frequently on Channel One than on Channel Two. (On Channel One bias was determined to exist in roughly one-fifth of that station’s news coverage, whereas on Channel Two, it was found in almost two-thirds of the stories.) NTV’s campaign coverage did not display apparent bias on either daily news or weekend news analysis programs.

The weight of election coverage and the economic crunch are falling hard on television. In their straitened circumstances, and with little fear of getting caught, many television stations and correspondents are increasingly willing to “sell” the news. This means that they will deform news into infomercials for corporate or political interests. Some stations are more tolerant of the practice than others, but the likelihood of success of such attempts to “buy” the public outright has to be considered in the context of the way Russians watch the news.

Viewers’ Strategies

It’s one thing to point out instances of owners’ manipulation of news and public affairs programs. It’s quite another to assume the bias works as intended. As I learned from work with focus groups in Russia, viewers exhibit an extraordinary degree of skeptical engagement with news messages. This comes as something of a surprise, given the dismissive or even contemptuous view of the public heard from some Russian television officials, journalists and politicians.

But we should not really be surprised. During decades of Soviet rule, outsiders remarked on how ingeniously ordinary people could wring from the sparse news a trove of information. People needed information to survive. The news was scanned for hints of planned official actions, looming threats, or widening corridors of the permissible. Viewers dissected each frame to see what unintended cues might have crept in. For example, visuals of a moribund Soviet leader could contradict the words he uttered, and footage of foreign locales could inadvertently display a reality Soviet doctrine sought to conceal. Watching the news became like putting a puzzle together, and viewers worked hard to fill in the missing pieces. These habits survive.

Russian viewers are thus well equipped to spot bias, and they don’t need a college education to do so. Because the national news networks stagger some of their news programs, viewers dissatisfied with one channel may not find another newscast at the same time. But this means they are able to watch different news programs and compare them. Especially during times of crisis, that is exactly what they do. Russians devote a lot of time and passionate conversation to comparing differing treatments of events. They talk about how television coverage stacks up against the reality they experience on the street and they check out coverage of other Russian regions by talking to friends and relatives. When they encounter bias in news reporting, they usually watch to the end. But their trust has curdled. Two focus group members explain:

  • Evgeny: “I do not switch, if there’s a theme that interests me…. I’m interested in how they do it…. Do they lie well or skillfully; will they lie dazzlingly; will they lie disgustingly, vilely?”
  • Katya: “Even if you don’t like something, you have to know your enemies; that is, you have to know how the other side is presented. That’s why it pays to see it and stay abreast of things.”

These viewers are angry, but they don’t switch channels and ratings are not affected. This disconnection adds to the misperceptions that Russian elites hold about ordinary citizens. These elites apparently do not understand that the public brings to its consumption of news and public affairs programs the willingness and ingrained habit to engage actively with the news. They may not change the channel and therefore the ratings. Nonetheless, behind this passive strategy is a very active challenge to the news.

Television cannot remake Russia; it cannot eliminate the profound cleavages, solve the unanswered constitutional questions, or alleviate the economic hardships. However, it can and does alter in substantial ways the information environment of ordinary people and elites alike by affording them a genuine, if limited, choice in news coverage. Even in its much-weakened condition, the narrow and imperfect television market has been the main prop of news diversity. Keeping such choices alive is the most important public service Russian television can perform.

Ellen Mickiewicz is the author of “Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power in Russia,” revised and expanded edition, Duke University Press, 1999. She directs the DeWitt Wallace Center for Communications and Journalism at Duke University.

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