Russian TV tunes in to variety of choice

Orthodox cleric wants prayers to get their time on air

Postcard: Moscow

September 11, 2005|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Arch-priest Dimitry Smirnov isn't sure what part of Russian television disgusts him most.

It could be the raunchy reality show Dom 2, featuring unmarried contestants who act boorishly while trying to win a new house. Or the Russian remake of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, or the endless series of commercials in which come-hither women hawk everything from chewing gum to beer.

"Our television has the function of making dummies of people," said Smirnov, a high-ranking priest within the Moscow Patriarchate.

That is why he is lending his name - and his prayers - to one of the newest offerings on the dial: a broadcast channel for Orthodox believers.

The channel, called Spas (Russian for savior), joins several other newborn outlets that are a response to what television here has largely become - namely, dubbed reruns of Sex and the City and The Simpsons.

In February, in a run-up to the 60th anniversary of Russia's World War II victory over Germany, the Defense Ministry unveiled a so-called patriotic station called Zvedza, or Star, which promotes a rosy view of the military and the idea that "Motherland" is not a dirty word.

Retro TV and Nostalgia, two aptly named cable stations that went on-air in the past year, likewise transport viewers through old films, music shows and archived newscasts to the days of homegrown Cold War programming.

"The young generation thinks what they want is what they get," said Ivan A. Kononov, a producer at Zvedza, lamenting what he views as an erosion of traditional values among money-obsessed youth. "They should understand: The stronger the country, the stronger they will be."

Changed in the '90s

There was a time, not long ago, when the black box in the living room broadcast only the news and entertainment that the state deemed fit. Before the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, virtually all TV broadcasting was owned and operated by the government, which micro-managed every realm. Just two stations broadcast nationwide; commercial advertising did not exist.

As the political landscape opened up, so did independent media. By 1997, more than 500 privately owned stations had sprung up across the country, according to a survey of Russian television conducted by the nonprofit Internews. Nearly a third of what people watched during prime time was aired by broadcasters other than the government.

Russia's first private network, NTV, challenged the Kremlin's version of events in its newscasts, earning top ratings. Western programming flooded the airwaves as new cable and satellite providers competed for the public's attention against the backdrop of fledgling capitalism - and all its temptations. With TV as a kind of guide, the country whose citizens had long lived behind a political Iron Curtain emerged from behind a cultural one as well.

Since 2000, President Vladimir V. Putin has rolled back media freedoms, seizing control of the upstart NTV and forcing the shutdown of the last of the nationwide independent networks, TVS. But even as newscasts again reflect the Kremlin's worldview, the airwaves still broadcast Western-style entertainment and values.

State-owned stations still have the largest viewership in raw numbers. But, according to the research firm TNS Gallup Media, while viewership of government-owned Channel One fell in Russia's largest cities by nearly a fifth from 2002 to this summer, the number of those watching an MTV clone grew by more than 40 percent.

Sex or prayers

Russian TV is, depending on one's viewpoint, either emotionally stimulating or intellectually deadening. One station might be showing George Clooney in One Fine Day, while another broadcasts reruns of America's Funniest Home Videos. The Russian series The Candidate parrots Donald Trump's The Apprentice, right down to the refrain of "You're fired."

But now, just as unabashedly as other stations televise sex and violence, the new Orthodox channel Spas will broadcast prayer and feature priests - including Smirnov - as hosts. About 40 percent of the station's content will be devoted to religious issues. The rest will deal with secular themes, albeit through the lens of Orthodox life.

In offering alternatives to the pre-packaged Western programs that Smirnov says were created for a "totally different mentality," Spas wants to appeal to the millions of Russians who identify themselves as Orthodox but skip weekly services and lead more or less secular lives.

"Not using television to propagate the word of God would be criminal," Smirnov said at a news conference promoting the channel. "This remarkable instrument, which is available in every house, is so far only being used for entertainment."

He is, of course, trying to have it both ways - both condemning and exploiting the influence of television. He expresses horror about everything TV has come to represent; he also feels that adding religion to the mix can only help.

For all its emphasis on Hollywood-free programming, Spas' launch is not without another bit of irony: Its new editor-in-chief, Ivan Demidov, is one of the most recognized celebrities on Russian TV, best known for his work on the same types of programs the channel spurns.

Blonde and blue-eyed, Demidov in the 1990s was host of a show that brought music videos to the masses. More recently, he could be seen toughing it out on a deserted Caribbean island as a contestant on the Russian version of Survivor. His love affair with a young soap opera actress who also appeared on the show became fodder for the tabloids.

"I'm definitely not a fighter against the Westernization of the country," explained Demidov, pointing to his jeans as proof that Western influence is not, by definition, a bad thing. "But to be sure, we are fed up. We have to think of ourselves."

"Television can show sex or it can show prayers," he said. "It's all television."

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