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16 March, 2011  ▪  Dmitro Krapyvenko

Ukrainians vs Television

Quitting the "boob tube" is becoming more and more justified for Ukrainians. Their reasons are many

Reason I: Online takes the field

Watch a movie or a TV serial without commercials anytime you want—what a deal! Most internet users in Ukraine today can afford to download a good-sized video. But it’s not just about technology. The internet is gradually but steadily undermining television’s monopoly, both in entertainment and information. No comedy show can compete with YouTube and no reality show can beat social networks. On the internet, you don’t need to wait for the 7 o’clock news: it’s available online in real time, 24/7. US statistics look pretty persuasive: according to Forbes, the average American spent over 12 hours per week with a remote and no more than 9 hours on the internet in 2005, by 2010, things changed dramatically in favor of online. Now, it’s over 13 hours on the internet and slightly less in front of the TV.

Reason II: Reductio ad absurdum

From time to time, something reasonable or at least informative shows up on TV in between pop junk and political barking. At least, the previews would have you think so. But when you start watching a program like that, first you patiently sit through an introduction made up of facts you know from grammar school. Then you listen to experts and hear nothing but trivial and routine stuff. After that, you watch several dubious scenarios, and finally the credits come on. It takes some viewers years to realize that they can’t expect anything intelligent from TV. TV marketing specialists are oriented on ratings and mass audiences because this guarantees revenues. No wonder the silver a screen is filled with primitive, criminal and pseudo emotional programming.

If the viewer is not prepared to swallow sensational claims about hangover-free vodka, magicians with extrasensory powers, or vignettes from the lives of pop stars, sooner or later any interest in television will disappear.

Reason III: Colonization by Russia

Russian expansionism is affecting virtually all areas of the lives of Ukrainians these days, but nowhere so strongly as on TV. In Ukrainian-speaking families, even five-year olds have been known to stymie their parents with: “Why is everything in Russian on TV?” Yes, indeed, Russian teleproduct has completely dominated the Ukrainian airwaves, to the point that, one national TV channel aired blatantly anti-Ukrainian trash, like “Мыизбудущего2” [We’re From the Future 2], on the anniversary of the Holodomor or Great Famine of 1932-33.

Ukrainian TV producers are proud of their expanding product. But most shows have more than a whiff of inferiority complex and colonial obeisance. Just watch any talent show: they all have at least one guest star from Russia on the jury. “The Russian movies and serials that flood our TVs are nothing but primitive plots, mediocre actors and mostly copycat versions of some Western hit,” says Natalia Zaika, Communications Expert at Kyiv School of Economy. “On top of that is ongoing propaganda about the ‘great and powerful’ Russia. Russian pop concerts and shows are impossible to watch. The same people singing or talking the same lines over and over again. Comedy shows such as ProjectorParisHilton or Comedy Club often jeer at Ukraine. I don’t think shows like this are worth airing at all, so I don’t watch TV.”

Reason IV: The time factor

Big city viewers lose an hour or two of traveling for an average 8-hour workday, leaving very little personal time in a day—possibly 4-5 hours in the evening. According to GfK Ukraine, a sociological service, people spend 3:54 on TV in cities with a population over 50,000, while those who live in smaller towns spend 4:08 in front of their TVs.

“I don’t have time for TV,” says Bohdan Loghvynenko, one Ukrainian blogger. “I’m surprised every time someone says something about Shuster Live! or some other nonsense like that! I don’t understand how the feuds of a bunch of bureaucrats with a limited vocabulary and even more limited subject range can be of interest to anyone.”

Reason V: A form of protest

People—mostly young ones—who want to stand out from the mass tend to do strange things. Some join the child-free movement, freeganism (an extreme movement based on the principle of eating only food from trash cans), or other exotic trends. Public abjuration of television looks like another such exoticism, one that is growing into a protest, a kind of non-conformism and a rejection of social stereotypes.

But it’s not such absurd protest as it may look at first sight. As soon as censorship begins in the country, TV is the first to fall victim to it. When Leonid Kuchma was President, some opposition newspapers continued to publish, but criticizing him from the big screen was unthinkable. Censorship is rearing its ugly head again these days: the trend towards “guided” news on the majors, such as Inter, is obvious, as is the canceling of frequencies for the channels critical of the government.

Some protest quietly and simply by not touching the remote. More aggressive activists can even organize performances about “Killing the TV inside yourself” or “Live, don’t just watch” with a climactic ending of old boob-tubes being smashed in public.

Reason VI: Sleeping with the spiritual enemy

Religious beliefs also make some people quit television. Most world religions don’t have outright restrictions concerning TV, although priests often exhort their faithful to spend less time watching TV. “Idols, celebrities, TV stars—these are all antipodes of Christian values,” says Roman Kulchytskiy, a translator who considers himself an Orthodox Christian. “The viewer is introduced into the world of the 25th member of the Singing Underwear, an ironic pop band in Ukraine. TV raises a mediocre mass that dreams, not of salvation, but of big money and a pass to the world of the pop elite. For kids, television becomes the teacher of life wisdoms and robs parents of dialog with their offspring. The bright wrappings of TV values win the fight for family values, either directly or subconsciously.”

Reason VII: Entertainment for the unhappy

Recently, Maryland University researchers published the conclusions of their 30-year study in the Social Indicators Research journal: people who feel unhappy spend the most time in front of their TVs, whereas socially active people who generally feel happy find time for sports, books and community activity. Miserable people don’t look to be engaged, so they spend 20% more time in front of their TVs.

Yet those who sacrifice all their free time to the god of TV get little satisfaction from it. They watch TV because they can’t come up with an alternative. The Maryland scholars interpreted this as an addiction, similar to drug addiction. It gives temporary satisfaction that fills excess time and the resulting feeling of discontent.

For Ukrainians, TV is also the companion of unhappiness. According to GfK Ukraine, TV watching grew 7.2% over the first five months of 2009. This period coincided with the heat of the financial crisis, falling incomes and rising unemployment.

Is there life after TV?

Ukrainian Week talked to artists about why they reject Ukrainian TV

“It stultifies viewers!”

Vasyl Herasymiuk, poet

I don’t watch TV. I don’t even have one at home. Sometimes I watch “The Arts” online or Channel 5, and one or two programs on UT1. That’s it. For starters, our Ukrainian television isn’t Ukrainian. And all these endless talk shows—who can stand them? They stultify the audience! There is nothing worth watching. Our Arts channel is broadcast on cable and it’s one of the most popular channels in Poland! Croatia has two similar channels. I watch Polish Arts and always wonder how powerful and fantastic this channel is. Unlike them, Ukrainian television has the worst quality of all. When 1+1 started, it was at least dubbing good films in good language while Stanislav Chernilevskiy, the poet, worked there. Now it plays the same pop junk as every other channel. Movies are impossible to watch, no art programs at all, endless serials. My rejection of television is profound and pessimistic.

“This technology is stuck in the last century.”

Oleksandr Yarmola, leader of Haidamaky

Personally, I haven’t had a TV for five or six years now. I quit when I changed apartments last time. I just threw it away and never bought a new one. I used to own a used German TV set which I bought abroad in the early 1990’s. But it wouldn’t break, so I threw it out myself. This technology is stuck in the 20th century. All our band members have quit television: some threw their TVs away when they moved; others just never turn it on. We don’t even know what they show there. When we come to do an interview, we’re sometimes shocked by what we see in the studio. The internet is a much freer source of information. Only Ukrainians need to speak English, too, not just Ukrainian and Russian. It gives access to more information. The more information you absorb yourself, the better you can select objective facts using reason.

“TV eats our kids’ brains with a spoon.”

Oles’ Sanin, filmmaker

It’s been a year since I stopped watching TV. I have three sets at home but I use them as monitors. They aren’t connected to cable. If a nuclear war starts tomorrow, I can read that online. And I haven’t been interested in any programs for a while now. I download films and educational programs for my kids from the internet. The TV eats their brains with a big spoon and they’d rather read books. Quitting TV is easier than quitting smoking. It’s a psychological addiction. It’s like another family member who takes your life away. What for? I have a lot of friends who have pulled the plug. When they ask me “Have you seen this,” I say “No,” and that’s the end of that. We easily find other topics to talk about. We live in a fantastic land of pirates. So far, we have access to everything, so there’s no problem with that. My friends, directors who make TV programs and commercials, just don’t have time for TV. But I don’t think this has made them any worse as professionals!

“Watching TV just kills me.”

Misko Barbará, leader, Mertviy Piven (Dead Cock), actor at Arabesky Theater

I’m one of those snobs who can’t stand to watch Ukrainian TV. Luckily, I can watch the History Channel, Animal Planet or BBC on cable. Oh, and tons of films. Sometimes, I go back to watching news on Channel 5, but it’s just when I channel-hop. I quit Ukrainian TV because I can’t stand it. Watching it just kills me. Everything gets on my nerves: it’s totally unprofessional and corrupt and it’s all lies. It brings nasty words to mind! Society doesn’t have to be addicted to TV. Clearly, its stultifying effect is very powerful. And more and more people share my opinion. Young people don’t watch it and they’re absolutely right. More and more older people are turning off their TVs, too. Of course, this habit is a hangover from soviet times when everybody watched the 9 o’clock news to a man. Now we at least have some choice. There are channels where you come across an interesting idea from time to time.

“It doesn’t interest me.”

Natalka Sniadanko, writer

I never used to watch Ukrainian TV, except for news. I’m not interested in TV programs in the formats of big shows or chats among people I don’t know. It’s the same as when you come to a new country and someone there tells you, “This is our biggest star.” So what? Then you need to focus on it and remember their names. I don’t feel involved. News and films are different. You can either watch them on TV or find them elsewhere. It’s more convenient to watch news online these days. At least, you know which websites you can trust. When a conversation starts in a hairdresser’s, for instance, about who watched what last night, I have no idea what they’re talking about. But I don’t feel that I’m missing anything, either. We have a TV but the kids don’t know that there’s programmed television. They only watch DVDs. The television might play some social role, but I’m not part of this process. Sometimes interesting shows come up at 5 a.m. But when you really have time to sit and watch, there’s nothing interesting on TV.


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