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Russia's 'Optimistic Channel' Fighting For Survival

Journalists gather for a press conference by the co-owners of embattled cable channel Dozhd (TV Rain), Natalya Sindeyeva and Aleksandr Vinokurov, at the channel office in Moscow on February 4.
Journalists gather for a press conference by the co-owners of embattled cable channel Dozhd (TV Rain), Natalya Sindeyeva and Aleksandr Vinokurov, at the channel office in Moscow on February 4.
MOSCOW -- Just shy of four years ago a new private television channel appeared on the Russian media scene.

With a new generation of talent, snappy and hip programming, and a politically independent line, Dozhd (Rain) TV presented a sharp contrast to the drab and predictable Kremlin-controlled media. And it immediately appealed to Russia's emerging urban middle class.

Dozhd shot to prominence as a reliable alternative source of news, information, and commentary during the wave of anti-Kremlin protests that erupted at the end of 2011. It gave airtime to opposition leaders like Aleksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, who were barred from official media outlets.

By this year, Dozhd TV was reaching over 17 million homes across the country, had more than 2 million Internet users a month, and was on track to turn a profit for the first time.

Then it was stopped in in its tracks when its main satellite and cable providers announced -- one after another -- that they would stop carrying the channel, effectively barring it from the airwaves.

The move, analysts say, bears all the hallmarks of Kremlin pressure and, at the same time, illustrates the important place Dozhd has carved out for itself on the Russian media landscape.

"Any independent channel that doesn’t show what official propaganda shows is dangerous [for the Kremlin]," Moscow-based opposition political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, founder of the Mercator Analytical Group, says of Dozhd's importance. "In the event the authorities lose popularity, it describes an alternative reality. In this way, it creates a feeling for people watching that you can live differently."
Dozhd TV's Natalya Sindeyeva (left) and Aleksandr Vinokurov at a press conference at the channel's Moscow offices on February 4.
Dozhd TV's Natalya Sindeyeva (left) and Aleksandr Vinokurov at a press conference at the channel's Moscow offices on February 4.

Speaking to journalists on February 4, Dozhd TV co-owner Aleksandr Vinokurov and its general director, Natalya Sindeyeva, came out swinging. Dozhd would remain in the media arena, selling its programming via Apple TV and other similar outlets.

Claiming Dozhd's providers had dropped the channel "under pressure," Vinokurov made them an offer he hoped they couldn't -- or at least wouldn't -- refuse. "We are announcing a public offer to all Russian cable operators," he said. "We offer them for the entire year 2014 -- to any cable operator -- our content, our signal, for free, and then they can sell it to their subscribers at a price they consider right."

Such bold and iconoclastic moves have characterized Dozhd from its inception.

ALSO READ: Opposition Dozhd TV Appears To Be Latest Victim Of Kremlin Pressure

What ostensibly got Dozhd in trouble was an on-air survey last month asking if the city of Leningrad should have surrendered to the Nazis in World War II instead of enduring a 900-day siege that saw more than 1 million people die. Conducted on the anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad, one of the iconic chapters in 20th-century Russian history, the poll struck a nationalist nerve.

Several Russian politicians called for Dozhd to be taken off the air and even prosecuted for "extremism."

But analysts like Oreshkin say the poll was just a pretext for attacking a station that had irritated the authorities by giving voice to their opponents and -- most recently -- straying far from the Kremlin line in its coverage of the unrest in neighboring Ukraine.

“In my opinion, the pretext is laughable. It was simply necessary to repress [Dozhd TV] because it represents a functional danger for the current regime," Oreshkin says.

While Internet publications and some newspapers enjoy relative freedom, the Kremlin keeps a tight leash on broadcast journalism, particularly television -- the most powerful medium for reaching households across Russia’s nine time zones.

Oreshkin also warns that key staff changes could be coming at Ekho Moskvy, a radio station known for covering politically sensitive issues.

Dozhd TV was launched in April 2010 by a team of young producers disenchanted with monochrome Kremlin-controlled broadcasters, and it forged a niche, particularly online.

During the presidency of current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Dozhd managed to toe an independent political line and maintain good relations with the Kremlin. Medvedev even personally visited the studios, located on the trendy Red October island across from the Kremlin.

With the slogan "The Optimistic Channel," Dozhd appealed to young professionals, the intelligentsia, and the so-called creative class with innovative programming and an informal style.

It aired "Poet and Citizen," a series of political satirical poetry readings performed by renowned actor Mikhail Yefremov and written by writer Dmitry Bykov. It also airs popular talk shows like "Hard Days Night" and "Sobchak We Live," the latter hosted by Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite-turned-social activist who reinvented herself as a television anchor.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Sobchak conducted a series of memorable and provocative interviews with the candidates -- except Vladimir Putin -- that were big online hits.

During the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, Dozhd teamed up with a group of NGOs that sent out an army of observers and provided a parallel vote count in real time. Observers credited the project with making those elections one of the most transparent Russia had ever seen.

Dozhd TV is one of three media outlets co-run by Vinokurov and Sindeyeva alongside, a popular politics, news, and commentary website, and the Moscow city magazine "Bolshoi gorod."

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