Viewers polled, but competition to pick anchor team is called a farce


October 07, 1991|By Will Englund

MOSCOW — Moscow--Most television networks go head-to-head against their competitors, but here in the Soviet Union the new leaders of central television had a better idea: For two weeks they pitted their news program head-to-head against itself.

It was a sort of one-channel ratings battle -- call it a free-market approach in this land where now anything goes except Communism. But rather than who gets the most advertising dollars, the battle would decide who would make up the post-coup generation of Soviet Dan Rathers and Connie Chungs.

For one week, the staff of the old program, minus all the anchor people who had been indelibly identified with conservative Communism, had their shot at the news.

Then for another week, an insurgent group, composed mostly of people who had been fired at one time or another in the past, had a go.

The idea, then, was to let the people decide, through a 150,000-ruble polling effort conducted by no fewer than three separate institutions. Whichever team won the public's affection was to get the job.

The contest unfolded as planned through the middle of September, the polling went ahead after that, and then -- somehow -- the whole thing got more complicated and political than it was supposed to, and in true Soviet fashion turned into a giant muddle.

But before getting into that, let us return first to the long-ago past -- say, the evening of Aug. 19, 1991.

Across the Soviet Union, viewers turned on the Vremya (or Time) news program at 9 p.m. to learn the news of that day's coup -- that is to say, to learn the new government's version of the news, because if one thing was certain it was that Vremya would parrot the government line.

The program began, as always, with the familiar bugle blowing a triumphally and insistently socialist air as viewers graphically swooped across the country and ended up at the foot of a stylized golden Kremlin.

Then came the anchors: Eugene Kochergin, a man who for months had been reporting the reforms of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev with a barely concealed sneer, spoke first. Tonight Mr. Kochergin was giving us some real news, a lot of it having to do with the return of "Soviet pride." And none of it, by the way, had to do with Boris N. Yeltsin, who that day had clambered up onto a tank and called on Russia to stand up and defy the junta.

To Mr. Kochergin's right sat Vera Shebeko. It would be unfair to call her a battle-ax, but she had a certain solidity of style, generally set off by perfectly awful clothes.

Suffice it to say that Aug. 19 was the high point of Vremya. Within days the leaders of the coup had fallen apart like so much wet toilet paper, and gone from our screens were Mr. Kochergin and Ms. Shebeko.

Gone, too, was Leonid Kravchenko, the head of what was then called Soviet television, and in his place was Yegor Yakovlev, the former editor of Moscow News.

It was Mr. Yakovlev who was persuaded to set the great competition in motion -- a competition that Olvar V. Kakuchaya, the head of the news department, now calls "a farce, a fiction."

In one corner was the old Vremya team, now appearing under the name of TV Inform. Under Mr. Kakuchaya's direction, it consisted of a lot of young people who had had minor roles before and whom practically no one had ever heard of.

In the other corner was the team from TSN (the Russian initials for Television News Service), young, energetic journalists who had formed their agency after getting fired by Mr. Kravchenko last January. They lost their jobs when they publicly protested censorship of the killings of 14 people in Vilnius by Soviet security forces, and unlike the Vremya underlings they were known by just about everybody.

The star of TSN is Tatiana Mitkova, a young slender woman with dark eyes, a slight gap in her teeth, an incisive interviewing style and a habit of wearing fashionable clothes.

She was joined by Dmitri Kiselov, a serious, baby-faced young man, and Yuri Rostov, a convivial sort who came over from the Russian TV channel to help out.

The TSN staff had formerly produced a 15-minute news program, and now they did the 45-minute main show in the same rapid-fire style -- there was just more of it.

The regulars put out pretty much the same kind of more languid program that they had in the past, but without the lectures and stern commentary from the anchors.

In the midst of all this, a surprisingly jovial Mr. Kravchenko pointed out from the sidelines, "In the villages, you know, the old people never destroyed an old hut before they finished building the new one."

And it was just about this time, according to reports, that Mr. Yakovlev began to have second thoughts about whether to destroy the old hut.

A couple of things became clear. The TSN people were winging it, while the old Vremya team still had its legion of support staff in place. But it also became clear, thanks to an independent telephone poll released before the formal surveys could be completed, that TSN was much more popular.

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