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Russia: A 'High Culture' TV Channel In St. Petersburg?

By Brian Whitmore and John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 26 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - President Boris Yeltsin says he wants Russia's only national TV station, located outside of Moscow, to become a broadcaster of high culture.

Yeltsin made the comment in a speech at a Kremlin awards ceremony last week for composer Mstislav Rostropovich, who is celebrating his 70th birthday. Yeltsin said he will form a committee to "make sure no corners get cut" in developing St. Petersburg's national television station Channel Five.

Rostropovich, academic Dmitry Likhachev, and other cultural personages support the re-structuring of Channel 5, in which the Kremlin holds the controlling ownership share. Vladislav Nechayev, Channel Five's deputy director, also favors the re-structuring. He says their plan, apparently endorsed by Yeltsin, would leave 70 percent of the station's ownership to the federal Government. The remainder would be sold to selected companies interested in supporting a prestigious cultural broadcaster.

Channel Five was a pioneer in broadcasting in the early post-Communist years. During the coup of August 1991, it broadcast news, while Russia's other stations were carrying Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." For a brief period in 1993, it was the only national television station that covered street fighting in Moscow, during Yeltsin's bloody showdown with the old Supreme Soviet. Since those days, however, many of Channel Five's brightest stars -- most notably Pavel Ladkov, who now hosts NTV's popular Hero of the Day program -- have moved on to Moscow's more lucrative and high profile television market.

One immediate problem with the plan is the problem faced by most initiatives these days in Russia -- financing. Anna Pushkarskaya, a St. Petersburg journalist, who analyzes developments in the local TV industry, tells our correspondent that Channel 5 is in crisis because the Government lacks means to support it. She says the need for Government financial support would be even greater for a high-culture enterprise.

The proposed restructuring faces other challenges.

St. Petersburg city Governor Vladimir Yakovlev urged Yeltsin last fall to sell the Kremlin's share of Channel Five to private investers.

The Federation Council -- the upper house in Russia's legislature that brings together the top leaders of the country's 89 regions -- has proposed turning Channel 5 into a new national TV company to be called Regions of Russia. Valeri Sudarenkov, the head of the Federation Council's Committee for Culture, Science and Education, said Regions of Russia would provide informational and cultural discourse between the regions. But nobody has said how this proposal would be funded either.