Ukrainian television programming is a chaotic stream of primitive information presented in a infantile and inferiority-complex-inducing form
“The president has expressed hope that this problem will soon be resolved”; “A life of disappointments and lack of acceptance among friends in store for Larisa Dolina”; “Our jury will now say which couple will remain in the project”; “Are your hands tired of the boring dishwashing routine?” Channel hopping is a frustrating process. You press the button hoping to obtain some food for thought and inevitably run into the opposite. Finally, the only thing you can do is to turn off the source of annoyance.
Looking for the new, the relevant and the interesting on television today is like trying to write a text message with a conventional telephone. Smart people who have abandoned this magic complement of the sofa consider the tube an outdated piece of equipment (see UW, Is. 5/2011). But it is too early to write off television – it remains the only source of information for millions of Ukrainians. Your correspondent from The Ukrainian Week forced herself to spend a few days in front of the TV to see how useful it is. The conclusion is disheartening: Ukrainian TV channels, which are watched by more than 90% of the Ukrainian viewing audience, are dumbing down the nation.
LAUGHTER AND TEARS
Entertainment rules Ukrainian television today. This season it is actually intent on making people roar with laughter. The three needs of temporary society, as proclaimed by the Internet cartoon character Mister Freeman, – to eat, poop and laugh – now dominate TV content. The boob tube offers a plethora of laugh-till-you-drop options: family shows (Make a Comic Laugh, Make Me Laugh, Sing if you Can, Anecdotes Ukrainian style), titillating humor for men (Naked and Funny), TV series for young viewers with their primitive jokes (Univer, Interns, Real Dudes), comic soap operas for all age groups (Happy Together, The Voronins), as well as the likes of 95 District, Our Russia and Fayna Ukrayina. There is no end to them. There is nothing wrong with wanting to have fun, but Ukrainian television has serialized the culture of laughter with a predictable loss of quality and ended up feeding the viewer cheap, primitive slap-stick.
Those who crave drama need not complain: they can vote for hoards of “young stars” in countless talent shows. Just send a text message and your favorite star will not hear the horrible verdict: “Your life in this project is over.” This is what they actually say: “Life is over!” - sounds rather hopeless. There is even a profession of sorts – show participant. These people hop from one program to another: first, sing in Star Factory or X Factor, then dance in Dancing with Stars, and later, perhaps, perform some physical exercises either on ice or in circus. The Inter channel has been magnanimous enough to allow hundreds of young Ukrainians dance in Independence Square (Maidan), no less. The rumor is circulating that the Maidance project has been crafted by a Russian spin doctor to keep the center of Kyiv occupied a year ahead and thus rule out any protests taking place there. This conjecture can always be dismissed as paranoidal: it is “nothing personal”; just searching for talent.
PER ASPERA AD ASTRA
On weekends, the TV turns into an observatory for watching showbiz stars: All the Truth about Stars, The Life of Beau Monde, Star Life, Blood Test, Maximum, My Truth, Show Mania, Exclusive and Anatomy of Glory. All these programs try to make viewers look at their idols in a different way, learn their “secrets” and understand that “they are people just like us.” “Lyudmila Gurchenko was never reconciled with her daughter before death.” The anchorperson raises his voice and explodes with the question: “Do you want to know why? Stay tuned!” “Shocking details from the life of Lolita Milavskaya!” screams a different channel. This would suggest to an outsider that Ukrainians are all itching to know that singer A has out-of-wedlock children and has had abortions; showman B is an alcoholic and homosexual; dancer C has a new car; D and E have an office love affair; and F has loads of money. It is easy to understand why TV producers crank out this trash. The pragmatic and cynical approach to what the viewer should be fed was aptly satirized in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). Nothing has changed since then.
MARCH, 8 IS YOUR DAY
The star-centered programs have Siamese twins: numerous shows for women. Love and everything things related to it is widely exploited by Ukrainian channels. The choice is astounding: programs about clothes, cosmetics, weight and the world of glamour. All of them are, so to speak, guides about how to produce pheromones, these precursors of seduction. The television teaches women how to be attractive and act in order to conquer a man with their unparalleled beauty. The icons here are big-breasted silicon blondes – relaxed, carefree and naïve; but they are pragmatic as adults at the same time. Their life goal is to find a sugar daddy and enjoy life just because they are so awesome. The next stage is matrimonial. To the accompaniment of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, programs like Let’s Get Married, On Love and Bachelor come to the screen. Like concubines on a slave market, women exhibit their forms to attract men, just short of showing their teeth. The final portion of TV products targeting the fair sex is programming for the married: Super Nanny, Family Dramas, Wife Exchange, Betrayal Theory and Hello, I am Your Aunt. Here the shimmer of glamour yields to everyday realism and romantic plays to family rows.
Strictly in keeping with the principle of gender equality, programs for women are interspersed with content purely for men – scantily clad female singers, titillating shows, crime and justice, pseudo-investigations, as well as the Russian propaganda series about the “Great Patriotic War,” the “great Russian Empire” and the military/bandits/cops. That these testosterone-filled cliff-hangers about “true men” are the product of Russia does not seem to bother anyone. Ukrainian TV channels are buying cheap and largely government-commissioned Russian series and will continue to do so. According to sources that spoke to The Ukrainian Week, several Ukrainian TV channels in the top ten bought three to four times more movies and programs from Russia in 2011 than they did in 2010.
Young people are also targeted. The main message of channels focused on youth is best summed up by a line from a refrain sung by Russian band Zveri (Beasts): “Stronger drinks, shorter words; it’s easier; it’s simpler.” It is horrifying to think what kinds of people these teenagers will grow up to be after learning their priorities in life from this kind of TV programming. At best, TV promotes the cult of money, ignorance, kitsch and stereotyped thinking. At worst, it is dumbing down an entire generation.
Another entertainment TV trend in Ukraine is an increasing number of programs about the occult. Sorcerers with long pedigrees who can solve all of your problems over the phone, parallel worlds and the battles of psychics – all this eclipses the trickles of science or religion, historical sketches or investigative journalism. Documentaries and analytical news are virtually no where to be found on Ukrainian television.
STRANGERS ON A VISIT
The down-to-earth and simplistic TV content could somehow be swallowed, but it is usually packaged in an inferiorly-complex-inducing form. In the past year, the Russian showbiz crowd (second-rate at that) has come to dominate Ukrainian channels. They are most often employed as anchorpersons, jury members or participants in talent shows. A Ukrainian blogger aptly noted that the Ukrainian television has now turned into the cesspit of Russian showbiz: the “scandalous” Otar Kushanashvility, who is long forgotten in Russia; Ivan Urgant, the face of all programs; the no longer provocative and simply vulgar Dmitry Nagiev; the perpetually present Alla Pugacheva and Maxim Galkin; the condescendingly impudent Sergey Pisarenko and others. In addition, there is a genus of migrating Russian stars: Nikolay Baskov, Sergey Zverev, Anastasiya Zavorotnyuk, Sergey Sosedov, Anfisa Chekhova, Filipp Kirkorov, etc. Russian hosts of political shows have become the norm (Savik Shuster, Yevgeny Kiselev and Andrey Palchevsky). Shuster’s phenomenon may appear understandable, given his charisma which attracts a fantastic audience even despite his chaotic migration between channels and from Friday to Sunday programming. But Kiselev is a shadow of what he used to be on Russia’s opposition NTV channel: his reactions are slower and worse; he shows much less competence and hence greater dependence on the powerful; he resorts to unacceptable ways to generate interest, such as playing talk show guests against each other until they are bound to literally start fighting in the studio.
To all of them Ukraine is a convenient reserve landing site: after their careers are over in Russia due to stronger competition there, they can cash in here. They bungle their jobs and do not even try to dig deeper into our realities. And of course, they ignore Ukrainian – it can only be heard in questions or off-screen commentaries. When a Ukrainian is miraculously chosen to host a show, he must speak Russian for some reason.
Russian news specialists have also taken to Ukraine. For example, the analytical department of the STB channel is now headed by Russian Mikhail Yermolaev who had a stint with the Russian RTR (Vesti program) known for its anti-Ukrainian stance. It will be interesting to see how emphasis will shift in what was until recently the most balanced Ukrainian TV news and whether the Vikna program will continue to feature the refined pronunciation of anchorpersons and reporters – Yermolaev has zero Ukrainian language proficiency and is completely ignorant about the context of our society.
A while ago, Ilya Kanavin was appointed a consultant to the news service of the Inter media group, owned by National Information Systems. He used to work as a political observer, again, with the Russia (RTR) channel. Igor Shuvalov, notable Russian spin doctor, was recently employed as a consultant to the entire Inter group. He is said to be one of the people behind the anti-Ukrainian propaganda products during the 2004 presidential campaign. After these Russian appointments, Inter has not given as much as a hit of criticism against the government, preferring to push exclusively positive news.
MUSTY TV PERSONAE
In addition to Russian “stars,” our television has become a haven to the TVs symbols of the Leonid Kuchma era – Dmitry Gordon, Yan Tabachnik and Mykhailo Poplavsky. They were reborn on the First National Channel, which under the guidance of Yehor Benkendorf and Walid Harfouche has turned into a pro-government channel like in Russia. Its content has dramatically changed since Viktor Yushchenko's term in office: Inter is now perhaps the only other channel that can compete with it in terms of how intensively “Russian World” ideas are being inculcated and how much positive news about the government is produced. The Institute of Sociology (Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences) and the Academy of the Ukrainian Press carried out a joint study which showed that 95% of the sound-bites broadcast by the First National feature government representatives. They are also by far the most often quotes people in the news. In general, according to Telekrytyka’s television monitoring project, this channel is among the top three (together with New Channel and Inter) which failed to report socially sensitive, critical information. Other channels have also changed the tonality, albeit to a smaller degree. They now are reporting about the government exactly like in the old saw about the dead: aut bene aut nihil. Topics that stir up hot discussions on the Internet are sometimes completely ignored by the television. The situation sometimes verges on the absurd: the top news of a news release is the birth of an animal in the zoo, while there is not a word about significant and socially important information that could incite protest attitudes. One receives a lasting impression that the First National, Inter and other channels are fulfilling political orders to brainwash the electorate.
An important part of this brainwashing is ignoring certain topics that are inconvenient to the government. Most often they fail to report developments that damage people’s welfare or the public statements and actions of the opposition. For example, no leading channel reported in April that telephone users would start seeing bigger bills starting in May. GFK’s research showing a drop in consumer confidence in Ukraine was also left without notice. The television failed to inform that experts raised the projected inflation rate for 2011 to 11.1%. No mention was made of the chief of the Control and Auditing Directorate who said that the fight against corruption in Ukraine was being stalled by the entire government apparatus rather than organized crime. The Razumkov Center has polled experts and found that they believe Russia has had an adverse impact on the situation in the Crimea, but the television ignored this as well. Moreover, events linked to conflicts in culture and education and provoked by government’s actions often go unreported, as does information about the government cracking down on business or protests by various political forces and population groups.
“If you happen to be born in an empire, it is better to live in the backwoods by the sea (quote from Brodsky). This is what I'm doing. I live and work in Kyiv.” Yevgeny Kiselev
Selective TV reporting. April 24 watch: What was the viewer not shown?
– the notorious VR decision to hang out red flags next to the state flag on May 9
– the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) asked President Viktor Yanukovych on Easter Day to be granted the rights of a legal person
– the results of a recent opinion poll by the Razumkov Center showing that nearly half of the country’s population does not support Mr. Yanukovych
– a Ukrainian peacekeeper, Major Viacheslav Sulin, died.
– developments in the case against Yulia Tymoshenko.
– the condition of the imprisoned oppositionist Yurii Lutsenko (reported only by the First National Channel).
– Ukraine landing its biggest contract ever – an arms supply deal with Iraq
– Ukraine announcing preparations to start upgrading its gas transportation system in the summer.