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Russia: Changes Sweep Through Two TV Networks

  • Floriana Fossato



Moscow, 5 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - A wave of changes is underway at RTR and ORT, Russia's main, nation-wide TV networks.

"Kultura," a new Russian cultural television channel that is de-facto a department of the fully state-owned Russian television network RTR, started broadcasting November 1. "Kultura" broadcasts to a potential audience of some 100 million in European Russia, using a frequency formerly used by St Petersburg Channel 5.

Russia's President Boris Yeltsin chairs the network's board of trustees and signed a decree in August ordering the launch of "Kultura." The network's first broadast was a pre-recorded message from Yeltsin, who said he hopes it will raise the profile of the arts and the general level of culture in society. The board includes prominent cultural figures. However, Yeltsin acknowledged that "today people have a choice, so the new network will have to fight for an audience, find its own style" to attract a public that has grown accustomed to a wide choice of televised entertainment.

Yeltsin said the launch of "Kultura" fulfills the aspirations of artists, as well as of many people, "who have long been waiting" for a serious approach and discussions on "spiritual values, morality, faith, education, Russia's cultural and historical heritage."

Our Moscow correspondent reports the network's first day of broadcasting last Saturday included "Ginger and Fred," a powerful satire on TV and advertizing by celebrated director Federico Fellini. However, the film was not a novelty for the Russian public, as it has been broadcast on different TV channels in the past few years.

"Kultura" will feature cultural and educational programming and, unlike rival channels, including RTR, will not run advertising. Instead, it relies fully on state subsidies, which have been limited since the collapse of the Soviet-era system of subsidies.

Oleg Poptsov, who chaired RTR from 1990 until his dismissal in 1996, told RFE/RL that he is skeptical about "Kultura"'s prospects. Poptsov said that it is "absurd" and "illiterate" to think that the network will be able to survive purely on state funding.

And, he predicted that the network will soon be partly privatized, as was the Channel 1 network Russian Public Television (ORT) two years ago. The state now owes 51 percent of ORT's stakes, while three private shareholders control the remaining 49 percent. The main private shareholder, holding 38 percent, is a consortium of four banks (Obedinyonny Bank, Menatep Bank, Alfa Bank and SBS Agro Bank).

According to Poptsov, the focus on cultural and educational programming at "Kultura" is unlikely to continue, if financial groups, at some stage, acquire shares in the new channel.

In an implicit admission that problems could at some stage arise, the new channel's director, Mikhail Shvydkoi, said recently that "Kultura" is a very ambitious project, and that it could face financial difficulties.

RTR's recently appointed deputy chairman, Mikhail Lesin said in an interview with "Kommersant daily" that "with respect to profitability, everything is clear. Everybody knows culture has never been profitable." Lesin was among the creators of one of Russia's most successful advertisement companies, "Video international." "Video International" is reported to be RTR's exclusive advertising agent. And, the majority of RTR's prime-time programs are produced by "Video International."

RTR is fully state-owned, but critics have expressed doubt the state's budget is financing RTR's operation in full, suggesting that "Video International" has been playing a growing role in financing.

In comments concerning ORT, made to RFE/RL last August, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov said the state should re-establish control over both the finances and the "ideological foundation" of the work of Public Russian Television.

Nemtsov, at the time, also attacked tycoon-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky, whom Yeltsin sacked today from his position as Deputy Secretary of Russia's Security Council.

Berezovsky's business interests include stakes in the giant car concern LogoVAZ and in Aeroflot and Transaero airlines. Through his business holdings, Berezovsky owns an eight percent stake of ORT and is reported to maintains control over some top ORT managers, who formerly were top LogoVAZ managers. Obedenyonny bank, a LogoVAZ affiliated, is part of the consortium of four banks that owns 38 percent of ORT.

Berezovsky was appointed to the Security Council following last year's presidential election. During the electoral campaign, newspapers, magazines and -- particularly TV channels linked to a group of powerful bankers and businessmen -- played a key role in boosting President Boris Yeltsin's ratings.

Following his appointment to the Security Council, Berezovsky said he had delegated all his business commitments, including his role in ORT's board of directors. However, Nemtsov said that "even if formally Berezovsky has now delegated the running of his business, de-facto he is dealing only with this."

Russian reports, quoting an unnamed Kremlin official, today said Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais, the other First Deputy Prime Minister were behind Yeltsin's firing of Berezovsky.

In his August attack on Berezovsky, Nemtsov said the magnate had "invented and developed to the very end a peculiar privatization scheme" that, according to Nemtsov, was "applied to ORT, Aeroflot" ant other companies. According to Nemtsov, Berezovsky first 'privatized' the company's top managers. Formally the company belongs to the state, Nemtsov said, but "the money it needs is being channeled through private companies."

This week, a council of state representatives for ORT held its first meeting. State Property Minister Maksim Boiko chaired the 12-member council, which also includes Yeltsin's daughter and presidential adviser Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin's spokesman and deputy head of administration Sergei Yastrzhembsky, government spokesman Igor Shabdurasulov, First Deputy Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, ITAR-TASS director-general Vitaly Ignatenko, and another deputy head of the presidential administration, Mikhail Kommissar.

Boiko said the board will work out and implement a single policy aimed at developing "a standard mechanism for managing government stakes in strategically important companies." He said similar councils have been set up in some of Russia's monopolies, notably in the gas giant Gazprom, in the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems and in the pipeline monopoly Transneft.

Boiko said that at its first meeting the council discussed preparations for the ORT shareholders' meeting, scheduled to take place next week, which will choose a director-general and a new board of directors.
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