- As a technology, television was first made available in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the 1930s; however, it did not become a mainstream medium until the late 1960s due to ideological concerns on the part of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union leadership. Early broadcasting was confined to Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Stretching across 11 time zones, the USSR’s expansive territory posed both broadcasting and programming challenges. The concentration of the population in the European part of the country defined not only the geographical focus of broadcasting, but also its thematic and programming principles. By the end of the 1960s, virtually every household in urban centers had a TV set, and by the mid-1980s, it was extremely rare to find a household without at least one TV set.Originally, there were four main channels: Channel 1, the main channel that was also used for broadcasting in the union republics; the Moscow channel, which targeted the population of the capital and Moscow Oblast; and two “All-Union” channels. In many rural parts of the USSR, only Channel 1 and one of the All-Union channels were available into the late 1980s. In addition to the national television channels, there were also additional channels in each of the union republics and in most of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs) of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. These channels broadcast in the language of the titular nationality as well as in the Russian language. The language policy on television would become one of the catalysts of the ethnic violence of the 1980s and 1990s. In addition to terrestrial broadcasting, the Soviet Union had its own satellite system that allowed nationwide coverage, as well as simultaneous broadcasting in various time zones. The system was known as Orbita, and throughout the Soviet period it grew to include over 90 satellites that provided programming to 900 main transmitters and over 4,000 relay stations. This enabled the system to broadcast television programs across the territory of the Soviet Union, as well as the Eastern Bloc countries.In the 1980s, Soviet programming became more diverse and included news programs, films, documentaries, children’s programs, and educational, sports, and culture programs; however, content was prerecorded, reflecting the geographical organization of broadcasting, as well as Soviet ideological considerations. News programs normally consisted of items related to international, national, and regional political and economic affairs and presented only one point of view, that of the Communist Party. Soviet-era news programs typically featured news presenters reading page after page of news with few visuals to accompany the text. There was no advertising on Soviet television because of the centralized economy. The gaps between program slots were filled with static images of flowers and other scenes of nature. As the majority of programs were prerecorded, few talk shows were available. This approach to broadcasting changed under perestroika, when the youth program 12 etazh (“The 12th Floor”) reintroduced live broadcasting.Soviet entertainment programs included concerts of classical and folk music as well as ballet and opera performances. Serialized television shows were virtually unknown, with the exception of Seventeen Moments of Spring (Semnadtsat’ mgnovenii vesny), a 1973 television series devoted to the work of Soviet intelligence agencies at the end of World War II. Representations of violence, sex, and vulgarity were not permitted, and generally Soviet television presented a series of well-produced but incredibly dull programs. Adaptations of Russian classical literature dominated the entertainment sector. Directors often used literary scripts to indirectly criticize the Soviet regime. Programs for children were very creative: Sleep Well, Babies (Spokoinoi nochi, malyshi) has survived on Soviet and Russian television since the 1960s. Children’s and youth programs were invariably didactic in nature and were intended to indoctrinate the contemporary ideological ethos, although this approach began to wane in the 1980s.Television’s role in the period of perestroika and glasnost was to present information that revealed the corruption and inefficiency of the regime. Along with live broadcasting, which minimized the time gap between events and their televised version, a culture of investigative journalism was established. The press attained an elevation of their status as they maintained high levels of authority through gaining access to and distributing information that had been previously unavailable. A few programs of glasnost became particularly prominent: Vzgliad (“The Glance”) and Prozhektor perestroiki (“The Spotlight of Perestroika”). While these programs focused on national events, others attempted to bridge the information gap between the Soviet Union and the West. These “television link-ups” (telemosty) included televised debates between Soviet and American youth; a series co-hosted by Russian journalist Vladimir Pozner and American talk show host Phil Donahue became increasingly important. With a set of new talk shows, live interviews, press conferences, and other live broadcasts, Soviet television changed from a static monolith to a diverse and highly dynamic entity. These new characteristics played a critical role in the early 1990s, particularly during the August Coup of 1991, which was crushed partly due to the decision of the journalists to broadcast details of the events.In the 1990s, television emerged as the central arena for political and economic debates. With the rise of oligarchs, television became a tool of propaganda and information wars. Business tycoon Boris Berezovsky obtained a controlling share in Channel 1, while Vladimir Gusinsky established the private NTV, and Yury Luzhkov gained influence over TVS. The oligarchs used their television channels to influence the government and to distribute “black PR” against one another. Television was central to Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign.During this period, television programs were flooded with poorquality advertising; still, it was in the 1990s that television finally emerged as a profit-making operation. However, Russian television networks generally lacked sufficient funds to produce their own entertainment programs. As a result, Western exports entered the Russian television market, including soap operas, game shows, and thrillers. As these often low-quality programs came to dominate prime time, Russian audiences assumed a more cynical view of the medium, permanently impacting television’s role in Russian culture: once a lever of liberalization and free debate, television ultimately came to be viewed as a tool for commercial interests and as a social evil. To counteract this trend, the channel Kul’tura (Culture) was established in 1997 as a bastion of propriety and taste in a media environment plagued by political scandals, repetitive commercials, and mediocre television series.The ascent of Vladimir Putin in 2000 marked a new era, both in Russian politics and television culture. In the first wave of Putin’s attacks on private media, NTV was handed over to Gazprom and the channel’s best journalists left to join TV-6. The most outspoken critics of the regime would finally be silenced in another clampdown on television journalists in 2004. The victims of the government’s actions were not only overtly political shows, but also entertainment shows that presented the past or the present of the country in an unsanctioned manner. For example, Leonid Parfenov’s Namedni (“The Other Day”), which explored the cultural legacy of the Soviet Union, and the satirical Kukly (“Puppets”) both found themselves on the wrong side of the Kremlin.During the 2000s, the new government’s main objective was to consolidate television channels and to ensure propagation of the “official” interpretation of political events and social life. Putin was particularly keen on disseminating a vision of the Russian Federation as a strong, confident, and united country. The nationalistic project was disseminated through a series of newly created programs, as well as special television channels like Zvezda (The Star) dedicated to the Russian army, or the Nostal’gia (Nostalgia) channel, which broadcasted Soviet film and television productions. Oppositional voices migrated either to regional media outlets, print publications, or the Internet, turning Russian television into a politically neutered forum where entertainment rather than information reigned supreme. While the role of television in relation to Russian civil society has diminished, television has continued to play a central role in Russia’s cultural revival: it is because of the growing television industry that audiences became interested in Russian-made television series and films, which was a huge boost for the ailing Russian cinema industry. In 2009, Russia’s national television channels included the following: Channel 1 (51 percent of the company’s shares belong to the state); Rossiia (previously the second All-Union channel), Kul’tura and Sport, both controlled by the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company; NTV and TNT, both owned by Gazprom; 5th Channel and REN-TV, both owned by the National Media Group; CTC, Domashnii, and DTV, owned by CTC media; and TV-3, 2x2, and MTV-Russia, owned by Prof-Media. Russian major satellite, cable, and Internet television channels include RBK (Russian Business Consulting), Pravo-TV, Ekspert TV, Russia Today, NTV-Sport, NTV+, and many others. In addition to national television channels, there are hundreds of regional and local television studios and channels.
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov. 2010.
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